Yesterday, we looked at the top ten interior defensive linemen, which included dominant players such as Fletcher Cox and Aaron Donald. Today, let’s look at more dominant players who generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks, this time with edge rushers. To be frank, this position is stacked with talent. The list of players who didn’t make it is stronger than some position’s top ten list, which explains the state of the NFL as a whole; edge rusher is a vital position for winning games, but it’s definitely an easier position to find quality players than cornerback or interior defensive line. So, who rank among the top ten edge rushers in the league? Let’s discuss.
All Grades and Stats From Pro Football Focus
#10: Jerry Hughes, Buffalo Bills
Last season, the Bills were a great defensive team, especially against the pass. A big reason why? Jerry Hughes was fantastic for them in all departments. The 31-year-old has been a solid player throughout his career, but last season, he finally broke out in a big way. Out of nowhere, he improved his pass-rushing grade jumped from 69.4 to 90.4, and as a result, his overall defense grade jumped to an 88.8, according to Pro Football Focus. Even more encouraging, Hughes was much stronger down the stretch after a few rough performances early on, specifically in Week 1 and Week 4. There’s a chance Hughes, who most years is also a capable run defender, finally reached his potential as a pass rusher. That earns him a spot on this list, though just in case it was an aberration, he sticks to #10 on this list.
#9: Brandon Graham, Philadelphia Eagles
Though teams are moving more towards excelling in coverage rather than pass rush, the Eagles are an exception. That likely stems from their Super Bowl title in 2017, in which they had easily the best pass rush in the league. Though Fletcher Cox will garner a lot of attention for what he does on the interior defensive line, Brandon Graham’s success off the edge also can’t go without notice. After posting back to back 90-grade seasons, the 31-year-old maintained excellent production with an 88.4 grade in 2018. His pass-rushing grade did drop to 77.8, but he did still have 77 pressures, and he was rather balanced with an 80.8 run defense rating. Obviously, the Eagles are hoping that he gets back to elite pass rusher he was before last season, especially after signing him to a three-year contract worth $40 million. I have faith that will happen, and if it indeed does, that may turn out to be the best signing of the entire offseason.
#8: Myles Garrett, Cleveland Browns
Drafted with the first overall pick in the 2017 draft, Myles Garrett was expected to be a generational type pass rusher right away. It can be argued that he hasn’t yet matched expectations, but in his first full season last year, he was terrific. With an 87 defense grade and an 86.2 pass-rushing grade, as well as 67 pressures, he’s already amongst the league’s best edge rushers, and since the third season tends to be the coming-out year for most young players, once can only imagine what Garrett has in store. Especially, since former defensive coordinator, Greg Williams held him to one pass-rushing move, even though he’s without a doubt an all-around pass rusher. With new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks likely ready to “free” Garrett, we could be looking at the 2019 defensive player of the year, adding even more hype to the exciting Browns. It’s obvious that he has all the talent in the world, and if he does indeed take that next step this season, he could make a case for the top of this list; this spot may be nothing more than a placeholder for him.
#7: Joey Bosa, Los Angeles Chargers
Similar to what Garrett is hoping to do this season, Joey Bosa seemed to be ready to make his third-year breakout last season. After all, he had posted back to back seasons with at least an 86.6 defense grade, was drafted third overall in the 2016 draft, and is part of a stacked defense. However, that didn’t turn out to be the case for the 24-year-old, who missed the first nine games of the season with a foot injury. When he returned, he clearly wasn’t the same, regressing to a good-not-great 72.8 defense grade and 70.8 pass-rush grade. Since Bosa isn’t a strong run defender (back to back seasons with a 65.1 or lower run-defense grade), he can’t afford to struggle as a pass rusher once again. Still, he had a 91.3 pass-rushing grade in his last healthy season, and if his last season’s mini-struggles were really due to that injury, there’s no reason he can’t be as quality of a pass rusher once again this season. If he does, he’ll move up this list and will definitely in line for a massive contract; one that the Chargers will definitely have to make in order to maintain success.
#6: Calais Campbell, Jacksonville Jaguars
In 2017, the Jaguars had the top defense in the league. While some of that was due to luck – both Deshaun Watson and Andrew Luck were hurt – they also had elite talent, and none better than Calais Campbell. In that season, he posted a 91 defense grade and a 90.3 run defense grade, which wasn’t surprising since he had a 91.2 overall grade in the season before with Arizona. The 32-year-old once again was great with a 91.1 grade and an amazing 93.8 run defense grade, but those numbers are slightly missed season. Quietly, his pass-rush grade dropped to 70.4, which is alarming given his age. In fact, his total pressures (53) was very underwhelming and nowhere near the top of the league. It could’ve simply been an off-year for Campbell, but given his age and constant decline in pass rush, it’s likely we’ve moved past the years of him being an all-around player, where he was more than worth the $15 million he’s getting paid annually (though it’s still a great deal for Jacksonville).
#5: Demarcus Lawrence, Dallas Cowboys
Currently, the five year, $105 million contract the Cowboys gave Demarcus Lawrence is the second-largest for an edge rusher. Plus, it could cost them the ability to sign some key players, such as receiver Amari Cooper. Yet, losing Lawrence would’ve changed the entire dynamic for Dallas’ stellar defense. After three fine, but not inspiring seasons, he looked to be a replaceable piece for the Cowboys. Then came 2017, where in a contract year, the 27-year-old surprised everyone with an amazing 91.6 grade and a 92 pass-rushing grade. After being franchise-tagged in 2018, his pass-rushing numbers (82.7 grade) did go down slightly, but his 88 overall grade was still tremendous, and he also doesn’t have much help. Hopefully, with edge rusher Robert Quinn joining the Cowboys, Lawrence will see less double teams this season. If so, he’ll be yet another clear defensive player of the year candidate, and if that’s the case, he’ll certainly live up to that massive contract.
#4: Cameron Jordan, New Orleans Saints
Over the past few seasons, the Saints have been able to rebuild what once was a historically bad defense into a respectable unit. Though younger players such as cornerback Marshon Lattimore will get a lot of the credit, Cameron Jordan was with the team during struggles, and during the team’s recent surge, the 30-year-old has only gotten better. Jordan has now posted three straight seasons with at least an elite 90 overall grade, and has had three straight seasons with at least 70 total pressures (including playoffs). Even more impressive, Jordan’s production didn’t vary much on a week to week basis, he’s played 1,000 snaps in five of his seven seasons, and he hasn’t benefitted from another terrific edge rusher. If Marcus Davenport can be who the Saints thought he could be when they traded up to select him with the 14th overall pick in the 2018 draft, Jordan, like Lawrence, is a prime defensive of the year candidate; his new three year, $52.5 million contract could turn out to be a great deal for New Orleans and is well-deserved for one of the most consistent players in the NFL.
#3: JJ Watt, Houston Texans
2016 and 2017 were both rough seasons for JJ Watt, as he played just 374 snaps after being an iron-man at the beginning of his career. After being arguably the best player in the NFL from 2012 to 2015, there certainly were questions regarding if he could ever be that caliber of player. Last season, however, he took a major step forward to getting back to those levels. The 30-year-old was able to play 1,026 snaps, totaled 78 pressures, and had a 90.6 overall grade and an 89.7 pass-rushing grade. Add in an also great 88.7 run defense grade, and it’s safe to say that Watt has gotten back to being the balanced player he once was. Even if the Texans end up trading Jadeoveon Clowney, they should still have a solid pass rush, and that’s as a result of Watt finally getting back to the production that made him one of the most popular players in the NFL. If this is truly legitimate, he’ll definitely be in the conversation for being the top edge defender in the sport once again.
#2: Khalil Mack, Chicago Bears
When the Bears traded two first-round picks (though they did get a 2020 second-round pick back) to the Raiders for edge rusher Khalil Mack and immediately gave him a $141 million contract, it was clear that they believed in him to be the face of their franchise. Though that was a lot to sacrifice, it was a wise choice for Chicago, who went from fourth-place in the division in 2017 to 12-4 in 2018. Though he did miss two games due to injury and played just 818 snaps, he still had 73 pressures and proved to be a clearly irreplaceable player. His overall defense grade (90.7) was great, as he actually did well with a 73.7 coverage grade, which is a very pleasant surprise. Yes, the 28-year-old’s run-defense (87.5) and pass-rush grades (86) did slip, but he also had to get used to being a 3-4 outside linebacker after being a 4-3 defensive end in Oakland. Plus, he had multiple poor games while playing through an injury, which likely hampered his overall grades. Therefore, we should still look at Mack as the generational talent he once was, though one player on this list still remains the top player on the position by the smallest of margins.
#1: Von Miller, Denver Broncos
Similar to Watt, Von Miller was one of the most popular players in the NFL, as he arguably single-handedly won the Broncos the 2015 Superbowl by wreaking havoc on Cam Newton. However, since Denver has failed to make the playoffs in the last two seasons, Miller has started to go under-the-radar in favor of more flashy edge rushers such as Mack. Still, there’s something to be said about being consistently dominant, and that’s what the 30-year-old has been; he’s never posted less than a 90 overall grade in any of his eight seasons in the NFL. Furthermore, Miller’s pass-rushing (90 grade) was great last season, as was his coverage (84.4), though the latter was in a small sample size (26 snaps). He did only have 64 pressures last season, but he was obviously still very efficient, based on his grade, and he did have three straight seasons with at least 79 pressures before last year. There’s no weakness in Miller’s game, who has dominated the art of being a finesse rusher off the edge, and as a result, the Broncos will always be a must-watch, regardless of their success; he faces heavy competition, but Miller remains the top edge rusher in football.