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.
29: Oakland Raiders
Before you shoot the messenger, I’m completely aware that Khalil Mack is one of the three best pass-rushers in the NFL. No one is going to take that away from him. With that said, one man does not make a unit.
Mack finished 2016 with 11 sacks, good for a five-way tie for eighth in the NFL. That didn’t stop Oakland from posting a 4.42% sack percentage, the worst in the league in last year. Mario Edwards is still living off the hype he built during his 2013 Florida State season before he reshaped his body and fell out of first-round projections. Jihad Ward was a Senior Bowl riser who had one of the worst seasons of any player at any position last year.
Defensive linemen are rotated more than any other position in football. While it’s a high-impact position, it’s a low-rep position. You cannot build a pass-rush around one single individual, even if he is Khalil Mack. Of the six non-Mack defensive ends on the team’s roster, the unit has a career sack total of just two sacks. These are the circumstances that lead a team to give an Aldon Smith-like player a second chance.
28: New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints are the New Orleans Saints. They build their team around the offensive side of the ball, get into cap trouble, get out of cap trouble and immediately invest back into the offensive side of the ball. We have known for years that the team has needed to pair Cameron Jordan with someone who is competent on the other side of him. As Lil Uzi Vert says “It do not matter.”
Here are the three worst teams in terms of sack percentage over the last two years:
- Atlanta Falcons: 4.16%
- New Orleans Saints: 4.37%
- Cleveland Browns: 4.96%
That’s not great. Hau’oli Kikaha, the team’s 2015 second-round pick, transitioned from outside linebacker to defensive end during the last offseason, just to have his third season-ending knee injury in his young career. This year, they brought in Trey Hendrickson, a third-round pick from Florida Atlantic, and Al-Quadin Muhammad, a sixth-round pick from Miami. Hendrickson was a Shrine Game player who never even received a Senior Bowl invite, the top senior collegiate all-star game. Muhammad was suspended several times at Miami and hasn’t played a football game since the 2015 season.
We should be talking about Jordan as one of the success stories of a 3-4 to 4-3 defensive end transition, but his surrounding talent makes it hard for him to have “the year” that propels him into superstardom. Last year, the Saints picked up Paul Kruger to be a starter for the team after he was cut late in the offseason by the Browns. New Orleans could be in the market for a salary dump veteran this summer.
27: Carolina Panthers
This is where the bottom tier of edge defender units ends. The Jets, Cowboys, Raiders, and Saints may not have two functional pass-rushers at all next season, but the Carolina Panthers do. The hang up with the Panthers is that their pass-rushers have little upside.
For as much talk about how not re-signing the team’s veterans caused Dave Gettleman to be replaced in Carolina, he sure did double down on some fairly average pass-rushers. Mario Addison, who will be a 30-year-old before the Panthers’ Week 1 game against the San Francisco 49ers, signed a three-year, $22.5 million deal this offseason. He has 25.5 career sacks. I’m not sure if there is historical precedent for someone at that age making that type of money with that type of production.
Last offseason, after a one-sack season, Carolina signed fellow defensive end Charles Johnson to a one-year, $3 million contract. This offseason, after a four-sack season, Carolina signed him to a two-year, $8 million contract. Johnson is now a 31-year-old. Again, I’m not sure if there is a precedent for someone of that age doubling the length of their previous contract and receiving a raise in terms of average salary after a four-sack year.
This offseason Julius Peppers, a 37-year-old, signed a one-year, $3.5 million deal to return to the team that drafted him second overall in 2002. Even at his age, I think Peppers has a higher upside than the other defensive ends on the team. Green Bay used him frequently on the inside shoulder of offensive tackles, or even closer to the ball, which hurt his production.
The Panthers also used a third-round draft pick on Daeshon Hall of Texas A&M, a pass-rusher who played opposite of 2017 first overall pick Myles Garrett in college and was a “Senior Bowl riser.” As someone who was there at Senior Bowl practices, with a focus on watching defensive line play, Hall won a lot of one-on-one drills (without full pads) by setting up an inside counter move. By the second day of practices, with full pads, offensive linemen started to sit on the inside move, which he had no response for.
The team also traded away Kony Ealy, known best for his Super Bowl performance against the Denver Broncos. Most of Carolina’s pressure generation will come from their defensive tackles, and most of the team’s sacks will come from cleaning up interior pressure.
26: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Noah Spence was probably the top rookie 4-3 defensive end in the NFC last season, but that was more of a product of talent pool more than anything else. He recorded 5.5 sacks last year. Here’s a list of rookie defenders to record five or more sacks in recent seasons:
- Za’Darius Smith, Baltimore Ravens (5.5, 2015)
- Jonathan Newsome, Indianapolis Colts (6.5, 2014)
- Chris Jones, New England Patriots (6, 2013)
- Barkevious Mingo, Cleveland Browns (5, 2013)
- Zach Brown, Tennessee Titans (5.5, 2012)
- Quinton Coples, New York Jets (5.5, 2012)
- Kendall Reyes, San Diego Chargers (5.5, 2012)
We shouldn’t be so quick to assume that he’s going to be a sure thing. Based on his athletic testing and age, we’re going to need to see about a seven-sack season from him before we know he’s “on track” to be a valuable pass-rusher.
Robert Ayers is a decent defensive end who is playing on a three-year, $19.5 million deal. After being drafted in the first round of the 2009 NFL draft, Ayers has recorded 33 sacks in the 128 games that his teams have played in. With that being said, he hasn’t played a full 16 games since 2011.
The facts are this:
- Ayers had 19 sacks in 95 regular season weeks to start his career (0.20 sacks per game)
- Ayers had 7.5 sacks in his last five weeks with the New York Giants, who let him walk into free agency (1.5 sacks per game)
- Ayers had 6.5 sacks in his first season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0.41 sacks per game)
Was that five-week span just an uncharacteristic blip? There are still unanswered questions there. As someone who watched every Ayers game last year, he’s firmly in the “borderline starter” category to me.
The other notable defensive end in Tampa is William Gholston, who signed a five-year, $27.5 million deal this offseason, despite never recording more than a three-sack season in his rookie contract with the team. Assuming he plays to his averages, he’ll be paid north of $2 million per sack over the length of the deal. If we judged Von Miller by the same standard, for his last four full seasons of play, Miller would be worth $125 million over five years, making him the highest-paid player in the league. Often, teams overspend for superstars, but why are the Buccaneers overspending for Gholston as a franchise that sits in a state with no income tax?
25: Cleveland Browns
As we mentioned in the New Orleans Saints section, the Cleveland Browns posted the third-worst sack percentage of any team over the last two seasons. Why are they 26th? Myles Garrett.
It’s that simple. He and Emmanuel Ogbah, both explosive athletes, should ease Cleveland through the 3-4 defense to 4-3 defense transition under defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who is coming via the Los Angeles Rams.
Even if you think that the Browns did miss on college pass-rushers like 2015 second-round pick Nate Orchard, 2016 third-round pick Carl Nassib and 2016 fourth-round pick Joe Schobert, they could have a function one-deep on the depth chart, with a potential Pro Bowler in Garrett.
24: Indianapolis Colts
You can’t look at the 2016 Indianapolis Colts’ 3-4 outside linebackers and project into 2017. They’re basically all gone. The team signed two baseline pass-rushers in Jabaal Sheard (Cleveland/New England) and John Simon (Houston) this offseason, while also drafted Tarell Basham of Ohio in the third round.
That’s three real bodies that you can have reasonable expectations for. That’s three more than last season.
Side note: Sheard is probably the most underrated second-round pass-rusher in a decade. The market for edge defenders in the draft is very similar to the market for quarterbacks: You either grab one in the first round or you’re taking chances on lotto tickets. Sheard has posted three seasons of seven or more sacks. Of 37 college pass-rushers who were drafted in the second round over the 2005 and 2014 classes, only LaMarr Woodley, Connor Barwin, Carlos Dunlap and Sheard can claim those numbers. It’s a bit surprising that Sheard, before turning 28 years olds, was able to hit the market twice after playing through full contracts.
23: Baltimore Ravens
The Baltimore Ravens are in a bit of a transitional period, caught between slowly shedding ties with the players that took them to their last Super Bowl victory and flipping the switch on a full rebuild. That’s no truer than at outside linebacker, where the team cut Elvis Dumervil (99 career sacks), is keeping the 34-year-old Terrell Suggs and drafted two top-80 pass-rushers in the past class in Tyrus Bowser of Houston, the 47th overall pick, and Tim Williams, the 78th overall pick.
Bowser isn’t the size of Dion Jordan, but he may be what we wanted the 2013 third overall pick to be. Bowser played in a similar college scheme, where he was half-end, half-slot cornerback, with the Cougars. The difference is, Bowser’s athleticism showed up on paper relative to his density, which is incredibly important for projecting college pass-rushers into the NFL.
On the other end of the spectrum, Williams had horrible testing numbers, but recorded 18 sacks over the last two season at Alabama, despite never playing more than 51% of snaps in any regular season game but one in his college career. Without the numbers on hand, I can only speculate that no player with Williams’ snaps or more in the history of college football over the last two years of their career had as many sacks relative to the number of snaps that Williams played from 2015 to 2016.
In a few years, we could be looking at Dumervil-Suggs to Bowser-Williams as the pass-rushing version of the key being handed from Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck, Drew Brees to Philip Rivers or Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers. At various points in the draft cycle, both Bowser and Williams were mocked as top-20 picks by former executives and those with ties to decision-makers. We need to see them on the field first though.
22: San Francisco 49ers
Neither DeForest Buckner nor Arik Armstead is suited to play 4-3 defensive end, 4-3 outside linebacker or three-technique. You’re going to be shocked, but the scheme that they played in during the 2016 season, under their college head coach Chip Kelly and college positional coach Jerry Azzinaro, was their best fit.
A move to a 4-3 under defense will put one or both out of position, but there’s a good chance that both see interior defensive line play in nickel looks, even if one of them is listed as a “starting” 4-3 defensive end as a base player. Even if the 49ers do need to play two non-Buckner/Armstead ends on passing downs, first-round pick Solomon Thomas, free agent signing Elvis Dumervil and Aaron Lynch could make up a decent pass-rushing unit.
Thomas was a college nose tackle early on at Stanford, a team that used a four-man rotation on a 3-4 defensive line. Athletically, he's the spitting image of Ryan Kerrigan, who might be the most underrated pass-rusher in the NFL.
Dumervil only has nine sacks over the last two years, but you shouldn’t count out someone with 99 career sacks and is less than three years removed from a 17-sack season when he’s coming off of extended rest. Cautious optimism about the situational pass-rusher is going to be key for 49ers fans.
Lynch, while at Notre Dame, was once thought of as a similar collegiate player to J.J. Watt. Then came a transfer to South Florida, his home state, a massive loss in weight, an early NFL declaration, poor agility scores at his pro day and his eventual selection in the fifth round. At 22 years old, he posted a 6.5-sack total for San Francisco in 2015, but the former Freshman All-American started 2016 with a four-game suspension, leading to a down year.
There’s a lot of “what ifs” for this team, but there are five pass-rushers who could have decent years on the team. If you’re playing the batting percentages, there’s a good chance this team looks serviceable on the edges this year. Pinning down who exactly that’s going to be is the question.
21: Cincinnati Bengals
Carlos Dunlap, who has recorded 37.5 sacks since being named a full-time starter in 2013, is one of the best non-first-round pick defensive ends of this generation. Last year, with J.J. Watt out, there was a chance that he could have had the best game of any AFC defensive end in any given week.
What has held the Cincinnati Bengals back in the defensive end department over the years hasn’t been Dunlap, but the team swinging on long players, like the 6’6” Dunlap, only for them to realize that they aren’t exploiting a market inefficiency. 6’8” Margus Hunt posted 1.5 sacks after being drafted 53rd overall in 2013 and is now an Indianapolis Colt. 6’6” Will Clarke has 4.5 sacks going into the last year of his rookie contract, despite being picked 88th overall in 2014.
Even Michael Johnson, the team’s starter opposite of Dunlap, has had an up and down career. In 2012, the 6’7” former third-round pick recorded 11.5 sacks in a contract year, earning him a franchise tag. After a 3.5-sack 2013 season, he signed a five-year, $44 million deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who cut him just one season in after a four-sack year. He then re-signed with Cincinnati on a four-year, $24 million contract, but 2012 is still the only season in which he’s brought down a quarterback more than six times.
The hope is that third-round pick Jordan Willis, a 6’4” super athlete, can be a Nick Perry-like player. With the trio of Dunlap, Johnson, and Willis, there’s a chance that the team has an above-average first, second and third pass-rusher in 2017. Carl Lawson, another rookie, seems to be flipping between outside linebacker and defensive end this summer.
20: Los Angeles Rams
Since 2012, Robert Quinn has recorded 49 sacks over 65 games, on par with the elite pass-rushers like Von Miller, J.J. Watt, and Justin Houston. That ratio of sacks per game is great until you realize that Quinn has only played in 17 of 32 games over the last two seasons.
Everything about the Los Angeles Rams’ 4-3 to 3-4 transition will depend on the health of Quinn, who has had a hand operation, his season ended by a concussion, had an odd hospital episode involving an illness, dealt with a shoulder injury and had a back surgery since last June alone. That was after dealing with both hip and knee issues in 2015.
For the 3-4 transition, former Philadelphia Eagle and Houston Texan Connor Barwin was signed to take over the starting role opposite of Quinn, with the 233-pound Samson Ebukam of Eastern Washington being drafted in the fourth round and the 5’11” Ejuan Price of Pittsburgh being drafted in the seventh round. The team could have four serviceable players and a superstar on their roster for 16 games. The team could have to rely on Barwin to generate an edge presence for the entire team. There’s certainly some volatility in Los Angeles.
19: Tennessee Titans
Brian Orakpo is a super athletic outside linebacker who has made four Pro Bowls and posted double-digit sack seasons for multiple teams. In an era where so many great pass-rushers are flying around on any given Sunday, Orakpo is hidden in the Nashville market.
The same could be said of Derrick Morgan, who just posted a career high with a nine-sack season at 27 years old. For a mid first-round pick to sign a second contract with his original team, starting 70 games and recording 33 sacks over the last five seasons, the fact that no one ever talks about Morgan is a bit surprising. That one-two punch, along with interior defensive lineman Jurrell Casey, gives the Titans a trio of pressure creators that many teams would swap for.
The problem is, there isn’t much depth behind them. That depth was supposed to come with 2016 second-round pick Kevin Dodd, but it hasn’t happened yet. 8 of Dodd’s 12.5 career sacks from his four years at Clemson came in the final five games of his career, including five sacks in the postseason. Had he not been on a team that made a conference championship game and the playoffs, there’s a good chance that Dodd would have never been looked at as more than a Day 3 selection. At the combine, he ran a 4.86-second 40-yard dash, only to run a 7.32-second three-cone time at his pro day.
All the signs were there to skip Dodd as a high draft pick, but the Titans still turned the card in. As someone who charted every top-100 rookie’s tackles within three yards of the line of scrimmage, tackles for a loss and sacks, Dodd stood out as a notoriously poor rookie last season. To cap it all off, he’s already a 25-year-old going into Year 2.
The team did draft Josh Carraway of TCU in the seventh round of this draft, but they have one of the biggest needs for a third pass-rusher of any team in the league, even if they are set with their starters.
18: Buffalo Bills
Speaking of charting rookies and the need for a third pass-rusher, let’s talk about the Buffalo Bills. Kevin Dodd’s college teammate Shaq Lawson made a huge impact, for the number of snaps he played last year, though he was limited after recovering from a post-draft shoulder surgery. With the Bills moving to a 4-3 scheme, which Lawson played in at Clemson, he should be highlighted as a potential riser this season.
Lawson’s athleticism and age mean that if he even records a four-sack year this season, he’s on pace with some of the best pass-rushers in the league. A 4-3 move should also help Jerry Hughes, the athletic redemption story who was discarded from Indianapolis during his rookie contract, only to post career highs in sacks for Buffalo before he was asked to drop into coverage more often.
Both of Buffalo’s ends could get double-digit sacks this season, but there’s little to no depth behind them. Lorenzo Alexander made the Pro Bowl after the 34-year-old 12.5 of his 21.5 career sacks in 2016, but the scheme transition could put the 245-pound career special teamer at off the ball linebacker, where he will drop into coverage much more often than he will pin his ears back and get after a quarterback.
Will the Bills go after a released veteran late in the summer? Do they value a third pass-rusher more than practice and game reps for their players transitioning into a 4-3 defense? They’re stuck in an odd spot.
17: Miami Dolphins
Cameron Wake just recorded an 11.5-sack season at 34 years old and should be looked at as one of the top AFC defensive ends going into 2017. His 81.5 career sacks, because he didn’t play a regular season game in America in between his final season at Penn State in 2004 and his first year with the Dolphins in 2009, is an amazing story. He should be a Hall of Fame candidate and his 76 sacks over the last seven years should be all you need to get him in.
I got the happy stuff out of the way, let’s talk about Andre Branch. Branch is a 28-year-old defensive end who has only posted more than four sacks in a single season twice in his career. He has 19.5 career sacks and just signed a three-year, $24 million contract with Miami.
That’s an average salary higher than the likes of Carlos Dunlap, Brian Orakpo, Cliff Avril, Whitney Mercilus, and Brandon Graham among NFL veterans. In a contract league, Branch being on this Miami Dolphins team with that contract is a net negative. Two days after the Branch extension, William Hayes of the Los Angeles Rams, who I could argue is on par or better than Branch, was traded to the Dolphins.
After that, the team spent a first-round pick on Charles Harris of Missouri, another defensive end. There could be a genuine situation where Branch is the team’s fourth end by season’s end, with the team on the hook for a $11.9 million dead cap hit or a $10 million cap hit going into 2018. For a 29-year-old. Whose career high in sacks could be six in a season.
Wake is a star. Hayes is functional. Harris had a horrid combine but is the type of player who wins with technique and in inside counter. Branch can be functional depending on the game. If we’re giving letter grade ranges for those players, I’d say
- Wake: A-B
- Harris: B-D
- Hayes: C
- Branch: C-D
The differences between the potential highs and lows for this unit, specifically with Harris, could make or break the Dolphins season.
16: New England Patriots
During the draft process, I focus on the trenches and quarterbacks. Over the past three seasons, I’ve recorded videos watching seven college pass-rushers:
- Vic Beasley Jr, the 2016 NFL sack leader
- Preston Smith, a second-rounder who led 2015 rookies in sacks
- Trey Flowers, the New England Patriot fourth-rounder with a seven-sack 2016
- Derek Rivers, the freak athlete who the Patriots took with their first pick in 2017
- Deatrich Wise, the length-strength end that the Patriots took with their third pick in 2017
- Marcus Rush, a non-combine invite who led the 2016 preseason in sacks
- Tyrone Holmes, a non-combine invite who was drafted in the sixth round
I chose these pass-rushers specifically because I thought that the general draft community wasn’t valuing them enough as prospects. It just so happens that the Patriots’ top three defensive ends, in my opinion, all come from that list. Watch those videos if you’re wondering why I might be higher on New England’s pass-rush unit than some, and to understand my process. I’m sorry for the uhhs and umms in advance. I promise you’ll learn something.
15: Jacksonville Jaguars
When you get into the 4-3 under defenses that stem from the Seattle Seahawks coaching tree but aren’t Seattle, there’s always some questions about the left end position. I went over this a little bit with the San Francisco 49ers. In Jacksonville, it’s a question about if you do or do not count Calais Campbell as a defensive end in that scheme, even though everyone on Earth will recognize that he will probably see most of the team’s passing situation looks as what most would consider to be defensive-tackle shades.
For the sake of projection, I’m going to count Campbell as an end, therefore an edge defender. If Campbell doesn’t make this list, you can kick Jacksonville to the bottom of the list.
As someone who watched every play that Campbell played last year, there’s no doubt in my mind that he was the NFC’s top 3-4 defensive end, with only Green Bay’s Mike Daniels even coming close. He should fit in well as the “big end” in Jacksonville.
After him, the projection gets a little shady. Yannick Ngakoue recorded eight sacks as a 21-year-old, a number I would usually get very excited about, but his tackles within three yards relative to the number of snaps he played, even compared to other rookies, was surprisingly very poor. Ngakoue’s impact last year almost always came from sacks. He’s a one-sided player, and that could keep him from starting a full 16 games or even replicating his rookie success down the line.
A pass-rusher with a 7.35-second three-cone time recording one solid season and then vanishing is much more likely than someone with a plus athletic testing background. Ngakoue’s projection forward, regarding his career, will hinge on what we see from him in 2017.
Former third overall pick Dante Fowler could be in the mix for that starting job too, even if he only has four sacks in his two-year NFL career. I’d be cautious of writing a player completely off before he turns 24 years old. After that, it’s open season.
Dawuane Smoot, the team’s third-round pick, is someone I’ve had my eye on for a while. He flashed to me off of his 2014 season, when he was a rotational player for Illinois. I’m not sure what to expect the group of Ngakoue, Fowler and Smoot in 2017, but I’m cautiously optimistic for three players I ranked in my top-100 prospects in each of their draft classes fighting for a job opposite of the best 3-4 defensive end in the NFL from last season. It’s a very peaks/valleys situation.
14: Houston Texans
This was the hardest call for me to make. The definition of edge defender here troublesome. Technically, both J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney are listed at defensive ends, even though they would both be 4-3 defensive ends if they weren’t in a 3-4 scheme. Clowney would certainly see linebacker snaps before Watt in a 3-4, so I went ahead and counted him as an outside linebacker.
Why? It’s where he has to play. Last year, the Texans only played two true 3-4 outside linebackers on more than 11% of defensive snaps according to Football Outsiders. John Simon signed with the Indianapolis Colts, while Whitney Mercilus returns.
Houston famously signed no significant free agents this offseason after packaging assets to get rid of quarterback Brock Osweiler’s cap hit. They also drafted no pass-rushers in the draft.
If Clowney isn’t playing as an edge defender, that means that Brennan Scarlett, a second-year undrafted free agent with no sacks in his NFL career, would likely be the next man up to play opposite of Mercilus, who himself often plays over the center as an Anthony Barr-like linebacker in passing situations.
Houston’s mix-and-match identity makes it difficult to pin down their 2017 team. They either have a hole on the interior line or on the edge, and their lack of depth leads for me to assume that Clowney will be playing more linebacker this year, especially considering how they use Mercilus. Either way, they only have skin-deep depth.
13: Atlanta Falcons
Yes, the Atlanta Falcons have the worst sack percentage of any NFL team over the last two years, even with Vic Beasley Jr leading the NFL in sacks in 2016. No, I don’t think Beasley, who was my top non-quarterback in his draft class, is close to being a top-five pass-rusher at the moment.
The team also brought in Jack Crawford from the Dallas Cowboys this offseason. Crawford is a solid fourth or fifth pass-rusher if used in that role. He’s a real life NFL player, which some depth charts are missing on the two-deep.
Last year, the team brought in Derrick Shelby from Miami, who missed most of his first year in Atlanta due to a torn Achilles, and Courtney Upshaw, who flexed between end and tackle and had a solid end to the postseason. Brooks Reed, a 2015 signing from Houston, was another pass-rusher who stood out at the end of the season due to injuries to several Atlanta pass-rusher. Adrian Clayborn, a former first-round pick with a history of injuries, has been a solid interior rusher and defender who opens up ends on both T-E and E-T stunts when lining up at tackle.
There are four solid names on that list that the Falcons could have in Week 1 that they didn’t have for the Super Bowl. Health is a major factor in Atlanta.
12: Green Bay Packers
In 2015, the Green Bay Packers turned down former first-round pick Nick Perry’s fifth-year option, as he only had nine sacks in three seasons with the team at the time. After recording 3.5 sacks in 2015, the team gave him a one-year, $5 million “prove it” deal. In what was essentially his second straight contract season, he recorded 11 sacks, improving both as a pass-rusher and run defender.
For as much publicity as Clay Matthews gets, the Packers front line of defense now goes as interior defensive lineman Mike Daniel and Perry go, with 2016 first-round nose tackle Kenny Clark coming up the pike. Perry is a right on the fringe of being a star pass-rusher, which is exactly where Green Bay should want a 27-year-old.
Over the last few seasons, Matthews has either been playing out of position at linebacker, at a very high rate or was dealing with injuries. Two of his three worst seasons in terms of sacks have come in the last two years, which is a bad sign for a highly-paid 31-year-old. This is Matthews’ last chance to prove himself in Green Bay.
With the loss of former first-round pick Datone Jones, who signed with the Minnesota Vikings, and Julius Peppers, who signed with the Carolina Panthers, the team is going to have to rely on Kyler Fackrell (two sacks in one NFL season), Jayrone Elliott (four sacks in three NFL seasons) and Vince Biegel (fourth-round rookie) coming off the bench. There also might be a chance that Dean Lowry, a 3-4 defensive end, see hybrid looks as a pass-rusher.
If I didn’t believe in Biegel, I’d be much lower on the Packers. Here are the college pass-rushers drafted in the first four rounds of the NFL draft from 2005 to 2016 with better 40-yard dashes and three-cone times than Biegel, all while weighing in at 245 pounds or heavier:
Biegel is an elite athlete and a well-rounded skillset. Even if he’s on the low end of this list, a Barwin-type, at 24 years old, backing up two players with double-digit sack potential is significant.
The 2016 Packers finished seventh in both tackle for loss percentage and sack percentage on the defensive side of the ball. Only three teams over the last two years, including the 2015 Packers, had both a better tackle for loss percentage and sack percentage than Green Bay did last season. They were a penetrating defense, even when Matthews wasn’t “himself.”
11: Washington Redskins
- Players with at least 7.5 sacks in the last seasons: 31
- Players with at least 7.5 sacks in the last two seasons: 14
- Players with at least 7.5 sacks in the last three seasons: 6 (Aaron Donald, Cameron Jordan, Carlos Dunlap, Everson Griffen, Ryan Kerrigan, and Von Miller)
- Players with at least 7.5 sacks in the last four seasons: 3 (Cameron Jordan, Carlos Dunlap and Ryan Kerrigan)
- Players with at least 7.5 sacks in the last five seasons: 2 (Cameron Jordan and Ryan Kerrigan)
- Players with at least 7.5 sacks in the last six seasons: 1 (Ryan Kerrigan)
The high level of consistency that Ryan Kerrigan plays at should be discussed more than it is at the moment. Since the moment he stepped onto the scene in the NFL, he has been worth the first-round pick that the Washington Redskins used on him. It’s easy to overlook him coming out of the 2011 draft class, which featured Pro Bowl pass-rusher like Von Miller, Aldon Smith, J.J. Watt, Robert Quinn, Cameron Jordan and Justin Houston, but Kerrigan deserves his shine. Last August, I stated that he and Cliff Avril were the most underappreciated pass-rushers in the league. They were both rightfully voted to the Pro Bowl in 2016.
Between him and Preston Smith, whose eight-sack rookie season puts him in good company, the Redskins should have their two pass-rushers of the future set. Side note: Many of Smith’s sacks from his 4.5-sack sophomore season were split sacks. He was more impactful than the stat sheet would tell you.
Behind those two, the team had Trent Murphy, coming off of a nine-sack year. Murphy is not only injured and going on the injured reserve list at the start of the regular season, but he also was slated to play out a four-game suspension before his injury. The squad also drafted Ryan Anderson of Alabama in the second round of this draft and has Junior Galette, who last we saw was posting back-to-back double-digit sack seasons for the New Orleans Saints, stashed on the roster.
At a 16-game clip, there are four pass-rushers with the upside of at least an eight-sack seasons on this team, plus a second-round rookie. My guess would be that this is the first time in NFL history that this is true. Unfortunately, Murphy is already out of the mix.
10: Chicago Bears
Despite earning the third overall pick of the draft with their record last season, the Chicago Bears were, in fact, eighth in sack percentage in 2016. Leading the way was Willie Young (7.5 sacks), rookie first-rounder Leonard Floyd (7 sacks) and Pernell McPhee (4 sacks in nine games.)
Young and McPhee have a very blue-collar style of play to them, while Floyd is a stretched out Gumby edge defender. It’s pretty plain and simple here. Chicago’s got a good pass-rushing unit, no matter if you admit it or not.
Side note: The Bears were so unlucky in close games last year, and Matt Barkley was so bad when he was the team’s quarterback, that there’s almost no way that the team doesn’t have a massive improvement in record in 2017. They have a great run game, interior offensive line and front seven. If they can just pudder along at receiver and defensive back, they could be a frisky team this year.
9: Philadelphia Eagles
There aren’t many teams who could have brought in a first-round pass-rusher with the idea that he might be their fourth option in 2017. That’s the situation that the Philadelphia Eagles are in right now.
The top dog of the group is Brandon Graham, who has had one of the more odd careers in the NFL. Graham is a first-round pick who earned a second contract with the team that drafted him, and a third deal is probably coming soon, but his sack totals of 3, 0, 5.5, 3, 5.5, 6.5 and 5.5 in his career won’t impress box score scouts.
I strongly believe that “pressures” are subjective, but there isn’t one person who has charted pressures and hasn’t had Graham in the top five or so over the last two years. Those numbers just aren’t translating to sacks, which could be due to the Eagles’ poor decisions at defensive end opposite of Graham.
In 2014, the team used a first-round pick on Marcus Smith II of Louisville, who was released this offseason after posting four sacks in three years. The other blunder in recent memory is the extension of Vinny Curry, who is a serviceable defensive end but isn’t close to the player he’s getting paid to be.
In five NFL seasons, Curry has recorded more than four sacks in a single season just one time. He’s currently on a five-year, $47.25 million deal. The team can’t even get out of that contract until 2018 when the deal would essentially cut off as a two-year, $18 million deal when you include the dead cap that will outlast Curry’s roster spot. There’s are 53 players on each NFL team during the regular season. That’s 1,696 players. Here’s a comprehensive list of every 2016 4-3 defensive end that has an average salary of more than $9 million per year:
That’s it. Even if Curry’s contract is terminated after a lame duck season, when he’ll be serviceable, but not starting-caliber, end, he’s going to come out being paid like a top-six player at his position.
All of that has hurt Graham’s sack totals, as he has to some extent been shoulder the load for the pass-rushers in Philadelphia. That will hopefully change this year with the signing of former second overall pick Chris Long and the drafting of Tennessee’s Derek Barnett in the first round.
The good news about Long, a 32-year-old, is that his 2016 sack total equaled his 2014 and 2015 sack totals combined. The bad about Long is that his 2016 sack total was four. He was a rotational player in New England, but there’s a good chance that he ends up being the same thing with the Eagles in the three-man race opposite of Graham.
Barnett recorded more sacks at Tennessee than any other three-year junior has in the history of the sport. His game is bendy, not explosive, which makes him more of a complimentary pass-rusher than a number one pass-rusher at the next level. Still, the ability to lose two edge defenders with the knowledge that you have two players on your bench that could start for other teams is a massive plus at a position that is more heavily-rotated than any other in the sport.
8: Arizona Cardinals
In Jones’ first year with the team, he recorded 11 sacks. In Golden’s second year with the team, he recorded 12.5 sacks. They both ranked top eight in the NFL in sacks last year. That’s not normal. Here’s how many times that has happened in the last decade:
- 2015 Houston: J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus
- 2013 New Orleans: Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette
- 2010 New York Giants: Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora
- 2009 Washington: Andre Carter and Brian Orakpo
- 2007 Dallas: DeMarcus Ware and Greg Ellis
The 2016 Cardinals posted an 8.07% sack percentage, the best in the league last year. The next closest team was the Seattle Seahawks, who recorded a 7.25% sack percentage number. The only team better than the 2016 Cardinals over the last two years in that category were the 2015 Denver Broncos, who won the Super Bowl and posted an 8.32% sack percentage.
There’s virtually no depth behind the Arizona duo unless you’re a Kareem Martin and Jarvis Jones truther, but there’s too much one-deep talent to not rank a historically great pass-rush in the top 10.
7: Pittsburgh Steelers
I’m a big Bud Dupree fan, and I’m not going to apologize for it. Here’s a piece I wrote pre-draft about Dupree and how he was quite literally too athletic to fail. He’s still missing a lot of nuance to his game, but there’s so much to work with there that he’s always going to accidentally find himself some sacks. He’s rare.
The 2015 first-round pick only has 8.5 sacks for his career, but after suspension and battling through injuries, Dupree recorded five of those career sacks from Week 14 on through the playoffs last year, a great number for a 23-year-old.
Pittsburgh’s new first-round pick, T.J. Watt, also falls along the lines of a freak athlete first-round pick who is almost too athletic to fail. I thought Watt's college teammate Vince Biegel was more talented, but injury concerns were a factor there.
For a 38-year-old, James Harrison still had plenty in the tank last postseason too. He recorded seven tackles in the backfield for a total of 16 plays within three yards of the line of scrimmage, the best of any player in the playoffs in 2016.
Three very real pass-rushers, with the arrow on all trending upward somehow, is a lot more than most teams have on their roster right now. When your third pass-rusher could be a number one pass-rusher on a quarter of the teams in the league, you’re sitting pretty.
6: New York Giants
The New York Giants don’t have two superstar pass-rushers lining up at defensive end for them every week, but they do have two ends who could make a Pro Bowl in any given year. Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon were a major reason for the Giants’ defensive turnaround in 2016 and the team’s wild card nod.
According to Football Outsiders, Vernon led the league in defensive line snaps played by percentage (93.6%) last season. Only two other defensive linemen, New Orleans’ Cameron Jordan and Oakland’s Khalil Mack, even played 90% of their team’s snaps on the defensive side of the ball. It’s worth noting that the starting defensive end spots opposite of Jordan and Mack could be the weakest in the league in 2017.
Despite missing four games, Pierre-Paul was on the field for 71.3% of the Giants’ defensive snaps last season. That was good for 11th in the league for a 4-3 defensive end. When New York wasn’t forced to, they didn’t play anyone but Vernon and Pierre-Paul.
One reason for that was the amount of money they owed both. Pierre-Paul is working on a four-year, $62 million deal. Vernon is working on a five-year, $85 million deal. The other reason that the Giants didn’t play anyone but Pierre-Paul or Vernon is that the team had no depth behind them last year. Former third-round pick Owamagbe Odighizuwa, a former five-star recruit, almost quit football this year. Though he had a great final season at UCLA, Odighizuwa has struggled with hip issues for his entire football career and was buried in the depth chart behind several college free agents last year.
This year, the team added two new defensive ends into the mix. The first is fifth-round pick Avery Moss, a former Nebraska Cornhusker who played for former Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini at Youngstown State. The second is the free-agent signing Devin Taylor, whose 15 sacks in his rookie deal is the second-highest, behind former Detroit Lions teammate Ezekiel Ansah, for an edge defender in the 2013 draft class.
Those names may not seem like much, but the Giants getting any pressure behind Vernon and Pierre-Paul is a huge step from what they had last season.
5: Kansas City Chiefs
We need to talk about Justin Houston. The last time we were excited about Houston was the end of the 2014 season when he recorded 22 sacks and nearly broke the single-season sack record against the San Diego Chargers in the last week of the year. He’s a four-time Pro Bowler at the age of 28. We need to talk about him more.
In 75 career games, he’s recorded 60 sacks. There aren’t many pass-rushers in the history of the sport who average a 13-sack season in 16 healthy games. Even when he’s missed games, he’s productive in the games that he’s played in. Last year, he had four sacks in 5 games. In 2015, he had 7.5 sacks in 11 games. In 2013, he had 11 sacks in 11 games.
He’s every bit the pass-rusher that Von Miller is when he’s healthy. That’s the catch.
When Tamba Hali isn’t going on Twitter rants, he’s a more than fine pass-rusher himself. Last year was just the second season in 11 years with the Kansas City Chiefs that he didn’t record at least six sacks in a single season. With the addition of Houston in the lineup, one would assume that Hali’s numbers are going to go up.
The third pass-rusher, Dee Ford, in Kansas City is a rookie contract first-round pick who recorded a double-digit sack season last year. He only posted 5.5 sacks in his first two years with the team, so it’s hard to project if he can repeat when Houston is in the lineup, but there aren’t too many 26-year-olds with a double-digit sack season under their belt in the NFL.
4: Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos couldn’t get to the quarterback in 2016 as they did in 2015. They took a step back. They dropped from an 8.32% sack percentage in 2015 to a 7.07% sack percentage in 2016. That seems drastic until you realize that it was still good enough to put them among the top five teams in the league last year.
Their pass defense wasn’t reflective of their record last year. There just aren’t many franchises with the depth at outside linebacker to pair a Von Miller with a DeMarcus Ware, and then replace Ware with former first-round pick Shane Ray, and then replace Ray’s reps off the bench with Shaquil Barrett, one of the more underrated pass-rushers in the NFL.
Miller and Ray are both double-digit sack threats, even if their style of play is drastically different. Miller is a bender. Ray works his ass off for every sack he gets. Barrett is a former undrafted free agent who transferred from Nebraska-Omaha and was coached at Colorado State by Joey Porter, who is now with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The bad news for the Broncos is that three of their top four pass-rushers (Ware-retirement, Ray-wrist injury and Barrett-hip injury) are going to miss the start of the season, but when Ray and Barrett get back, they should be a dominant unit once more.
3: Los Angeles Chargers
The last three teams on the list are where I’d draw the line for the “elite” label. These are teams with two legitimate superstar pass-rushers and depth. If you followed football at all in 2016, you already know who Joey Bosa is. After being drafted third overall, Bosa sat out the preseason and missed the first four games of 2016 with a hamstring injury. In just 12 games, he recorded 10.5 sacks.
In the last decade, only three other rookies have recorded more than ten sacks: Aldon Smith, Von Miller, and Brian Orakpo. In the history of the NFL, only four other rookies recorded more than ten sacks in fewer than 16 games: Miller, Leslie O’Neal, Reggie White and Julius Peppers.
If we extrapolate Bosa’s numbers to a 16-game season, we can project a 14-sack season. Only two other players in the history of the NFL - Jevon Kearse and Smith, recorded 14 or more sacks in their rookie season. What Bosa did last year as a rookie was historic.
The other star on the team is Melvin Ingram III, who makes offensive tackles look like college linemen with his speed-bend combo. Since 2005, here’s a list of pass-rushers who recorded eight or more sacks in both their fourth and fifth seasons in the NFL:
- Jared Allen
- Cliff Avril
- Michael Bennett
- Derrick Burgess
- Trent Cole
- Elvis Dumervil
- Ray Edwards
- Junior Galette
- Tamba Hali
- Jerry Hughes
- Charles Johnson
- Chandler Jones
- Ryan Kerrigan
- Chris Long
- Gerald McCoy
- Von Miller
- Julius Peppers
- Cameron Wake
- DeMarcus Ware
- J.J. Watt
- Mario Williams
- LaMarr Woodley
Both have arrived at elite places in their careers, and a move to a 4-3 defense will help them both. Behind those two pass-rushers is Jeremiah Attaochu, who played both end and outside linebacker at Georgia Tech and was lost in the shuffle in San Diego after a six-sack season as a 22-year-old in 2015.
Since 2005, here are the edge defenders to record a six-sack season or better as a 22-year-old in the NFL:
- Joey Bosa
- Danielle Hunter (twice)
- Yannick Ngakoue
- Aaron Lynch (twice)
- Chandler Jones
- Whitney Mercilus
- Robert Quinn
- Von Miller
- Jason Pierre-Paul
- Jabaal Sheard
- Aldon Smith
- Carlos Dunlap
- Charles Johnson
- Mario Williams
- Elvis Dumervil
- Shawne Merriman (twice)
Everyone is going to make jokes about new defensive coordinator and former Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley, but running a Cover 3 defense out of a 4-3 under is more about pass-rushing talent than defensive scheme. Jacksonville didn’t have the horses to run it. Seattle had the horses to run it. Los Angeles has the horses to run it.
2: Minnesota Vikings
Speaking of Danielle Hunter, he’s one of eight 22-year-olds to record a 12.5-sack season or better in the history of the NFL. The other names on the list are Mario Williams, Aldon Smith, Simeon Rice, Jason Pierre-Paul, Leslie O’Neal, Shawne Merriman, and Dwight Freeney. He’s the first player drafted outside of the top 15 picks in the history of the NFL to have his name attached to that statistic. By all means, he’s on track to be one of the five best pass-rushers in the NFL whenever he reaches his peak.
He’s not even the best defensive end on his roster at the moment. That title goes to Everson Griffen, who is fresh off of a four-year, $58 million contract, making him the X highest-paid 4-3 defensive end in the sport based on average salary. Griffen has one of the best spin moves in the game, though he did tail off at the end of the year.
The third pass-rusher on the roster is Brian Robison, a former fourth-rounder with 56 sacks to his name. That makes him one of the better Day 3 pass-rushers in the last decade. The Vikings three-man rotation of Griffen, Robison and Hunter took some out of the former two down the stretch, as they’re both on their third contracts now, but the addition of former first-round pick Datone Jones in free agency should give the team a true two-deep at defensive end for the first time in a long while.
They were sixth in sack percentage in 2016, despite playing Robison over Hunter. They were sixth in sack percentage in 2016, despite the fact that Hunter isn’t even in his prime yet. They were sixth in sack percentage in 2016, despite Griffen and Robison fading down the stretch. They were sixth in sack percentage, despite their top three defensive ends making up a combined 224.5% of defensive snaps together last year at a two-position position.
The addition of Jones and the evolution of the Vikings could put them up with the recent Seahawks and Broncos as the top pass-rushing units of this generation.
1: Seattle Seahawks
As much as the NFL talks about Seattle’s defensive backs, a zone defense, particularly one that only rushes four linemen, lives and dies with their pass-rush. The Seahawks have been great since they signed Avril and Bennett as free agency steal defensive ends, only second in rarity to quarterbacks.
They have another gem waiting for a starting role. As a backup, 2015 second-round pick Frank Clark recorded a double-digit sack season as a 23-year-old. Here are the players who were able to hit that mark at that age since 2005:
- Joey Bosa
- Mario Williams (twice)
- Ndamukong Suh
- Von Miller (twice)
- Aldon Smith (twice)
- J.J. Watt
- Shawne Merriman (thrice)
- Kamerion Wimbley
- Brian Orakpo
- Robert Quinn (twice)
- Jason Pierre-Paul
- Chandler Jones
- Clay Matthews
- Justin Houston
- Olivier Vernon
- Danielle Hunter
- Robert Geathers
- Elvis Dumervil
- Jared Allen
- Mark Anderson
Clark has the potential to have a more successful career than both Avril and Bennett. If you’re talking about pure talent, they are the one team with three defensive ends which you could argue are top 15 pass-rushers in the NFL at the moment.
Their starting defensive ends can only be matched by the likes of the Chargers, Vikings and maybe Cardinals and Giants. What separates the Seahawks from the pack is that they already have a full-blown star coming off the bench, one who recorded ten sacks while the starters both made the Pro Bowl last year.