1. Jared Allen
Since coming into the league in 2004, Jared Allen has already amassed 105 sacks. That averages out to just slightly over 13.0 sacks per season. Since 2007, Allen has averaged 15.5 sacks per season. That kind of consistency speaks for itself. Not only is Allen a great sack artist, but he has demonstrated a knack for creating turnovers throughout his career (26 forced fumbles, 16 fumble recoveries and 5 interceptions).
If there was any doubt that he was the best pass rusher in the game, Allen put it to rest last season in my opinion. With 22 sacks, he fell just a half sack short of tying Michael Strahan’s single season sack record. What’s also impressive about that sack total is that Allen did it on a team that was trailing in a majority of their games, resulting in fewer pass rushing opportunities. He also had 4 forced fumbles, 4 fumble recoveries, and an interception. If Allen played for a better team, there’s no doubt that his spectacular season would have received more national attention.
In terms of pure athleticism, Allen isn’t on the same level as some of the other pass rushers on this list. What he does have is great burst off the snap, superb closing speed, and a motor that you will literally never see stop on a play. Allen’s “get off” at the line of scrimmage is probably the best in the league, thanks in large part to his uncanny ability to anticipate the snap count.
Allen isn’t the physically strongest rusher on the list, but he is a technically sound, effective bull rusher regardless. The problem tackles have in blocking Allen is that he’s equally adept at beating them with power as he is with speed. In terms of rush moves, Allen has one of the best rips in the game. Not only dangerous off the edge, Allen is also effective on inside loops and slants.
2. DeMarcus Ware
The only player on this list that has averaged more sacks per season in his career than Allen is DeMarcus Ware. Since his rookie season in 2005, Ware has totaled 99.5 sacks. That comes out to an average of just over 14 sacks per season. Since 2007, Ware has increased that average to 16 sacks per season. Although Allen led the NFL with 22 sacks last year, Ware was a close second with 19.5. Ware also has 27 forced fumbles for his career.
Statistically, Allen’s biggest advantage over Ware is interceptions and passes defensed, which can be attributed to Allen’s superior ball skills. Ware only has one interception for his career compared to Allen’s five, and Allen has also more than doubled Ware’s career passes defensed total of 21. Aside from those stats, the quantitative comparison between the two players is virtually a dead heat, at least in terms of raw numbers. Although Ware is more of a physical specimen than Allen, Allen has been just as productive with less talent surrounding him throughout his career than Ware.
The only notable difference between the two players is that Ware tends to get more pressure on the quarterback through hurries and hits. In Pro Football Focus’ signature statistic, “pass rushing productivity”, Ware finished fifth in the league during the time span of 2008-2010. The stat measures the number of sacks, hits, and hurries a player gets divided by his total number of pass rushing attempts that season. Last season Ware finished eighth overall in the rankings. Allen, on the other hand, didn’t crack the top twenty last season despite leading the league in sacks. He was ranked 15th overall from 2008-2010.
It will be interesting to see where the two finish in the NFL Network list of the NFL’s Top 100 Players. In 2011 Ware came in at number 11 and Allen at number 80. It baffles me that the players voted Allen this low, but I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that he hasn’t received as much exposure playing in Kansas City and Minnesota as Ware has playing in Dallas.
3. James Harrison
The NFL’s meanest player since Jack Lambert has racked up 54 sacks since becoming a starter for the Steelers in 2007. With an average of just under 11 sacks per season during that time span, Harrison isn’t as dominant statistically as Allen or Ware. Last season Harrison only had 9 sacks, but he also only played in 11 games. When he was on the field, Harrison was just as effective as he’s ever been. Like DeMarcus Ware, Harrison has 27 forced fumbles in his career.
Nine sacks might not sound like a great season, but Harrison was ranked fifth overall by Pro Football Focus in their signature stat, pass rushing productivity. From 2008-2010, Harrison ranked third in the league in pass rushing productivity. He hasn’t slipped at all, he just got hurt. If he’s healthy again next season, watch out AFC North.
Harrison might be the most unique pass rusher in the league. At 6’0”, he’s the shortest player on this list with the exception of Elvis Dumervil. Although his build is far from the prototype of a 3-4 outside linebacker, Harrison uses his relatively short stature to his advantage. He’s one of the very strongest players in the game, not just at his position. Due to his lack of height and exceptional strength, Harrison is able to use leverage to his advantage better than any other pass rusher in the league. Since he stays extremely low in his stance before the snap, Harrison wastes absolutely no movement in his rush. He has the best rip move in the game in my opinion, which leaves tackles hard pressed to stop him without holding, which they often do. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a player held more often than James Harrison.
One of the reasons that I ranked Harrison so high is what he does for the Steelers defense as a pass rusher. He is the second best player on what has been the NFL’s best defense since he became a starter. It is largely because of the extra attention Harrison receives that LaMarr Woodley has been able to emerge as a premier pass rushing outside linebacker. It’s also worth mentioning that although I ranked Harrison below Allen and Ware, I consider him to be a better overall player.
I’m ranking pass rushers and Harrison doesn’t consistently rack up the same kind of sack numbers year in and year out that Allen and Ware do, but he is a much better player against the run. Ware might rack up more sacks, but he is a complete liability in the running game. Since he’s so committed towards rushing the passer almost every single down, he is easily trapped by pulling guards. Harrison, on the other hand, holds up very well in the run at the point of attack, and is also great in backside pursuit. It’s no accident that Harrison plays for the far superior defense, seeing as he is a more complete and unselfish player than Ware.
4. Julius Peppers
Thus far in his ten-year career, Julius Peppers has 100 sacks. In terms of consistency, Peppers has not been on the same level as some of the other players on this list. When he’s on his game, however, he is about as skilled a pass rusher as you’re going to find in this league. Peppers also has 36 forced fumbles, 9 fumble recoveries, 8 interceptions, and 57 passes defended in his career. He only trails Jason Taylor by 13 for the all-time lead in forced fumbles. Peppers finished 18th from 2008-2010 in Pro Football Focus’ pass rushing productivity. In 2011, Peppers dropped one spot in the rankings to 19th.
Numbers wise there is no questioning Peppers place amongst the best pass rushers in the game. There have been some recurring knocks on him however. Many have questioned Peppers’ effort, drive, and work-ethic throughout his somewhat up-and-down career. When Panthers hit free agency in the 2010 offseason, an ex-Panthers personnel man told the Boston Globe, “I wouldn’t touch him, for that money and what he gives you.”
“He could end up costing some personnel guy his job,” an AFC scout said. “I’m terrified of him. In my heart of hearts, I believe that if you pay this guy, I don’t think you’ll see a double-digit sack [season] again the rest of his career.” Despite what some scouts have said, the Bears weren’t terrified. In his two seasons in Chicago, Peppers has silenced his critics with 19 sacks, but the raw sack totals don’t even scratch the surface of what Peppers does for a defense.
With his 6’7, 287 pound frame, Peppers consistently draws double team attention. In spite of his size, he is also one of the fastest pass rushers in the game. “The numbers don’t talk about what he did,” Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. “It was the intensity of the game he played at, the speed. My God, the details of his pass rush. Forget the sacks already. Some of the rushes where the ball came out quick, they were some of the prettiest rushes you’d ever want to see. Just beautiful, the skill, the technique, the work habit, you know? He’s starting to really come right now. It ignites everybody else around him.” When he’s not getting sacks, you can count on Peppers pushing the pocket and keeping quarterbacks uncomfortable.
Like Marinelli said, Peppers has a reputation for being the type of pass rusher that impacts his defense beyond the stat sheet. In his first year in Chicago, the Bears defense went from being 21st in the league in points allowed to fourth. In his rookie year, Peppers was instrumental in helping the Panthers improve from last in the league in total defense to second. Every season Peppers played with the Panthers, they won at least seven games. In their first season without him, they won only one. The Bears had missed the playoffs three seasons in a row before Peppers came to town and played a crucial role in sending them to the NFC championship in 2010.
Peppers definitely has the respect of his fellow players. He was ranked number ten on the NFL Network top 100 list of 2011, two spots ahead of DeMarcus Ware. If you look at it statistically there’s really no comparison, Ware’s got the clear advantage there. However one could argue that Peppers impacts games just as much as any pass rusher in the league, including Ware. The difficulty in making comparisons based solely on statistics is that you’re not factoring in the scheme players play in, especially when the two players in the comparison player different positions, like Ware and Peppers do. Unlike Ware who has the freedom to pin his ears back and rush the quarterback on essentially every single play, Peppers has to play more disciplined in Marinelli’s defense.
And he doesn’t mind the role either. “A lot of guys in this league just rush,” Peppers said. “They put their hand down and they rush, and they have no idea where the slot is going, where the center is going, or where the help is going. They don’t have any idea about any of it. I don’t consider myself a pass rusher at all,” he said. “I consider myself a defensive end. Pass rushing is part of the job, but playing the run and doing some other things are part of the job too.” Like James Harrison, Peppers is an extremely good all-around player in addition to being an exceptional pass rusher. If the list was about more than pure pass rushing, I might place Peppers ahead of Allen and Ware. He’s also a run stuffer and a special teams nemesis with 11 career blocked kicks.
5. LaMarr Woodley
LaMarr Woodley isn’t too far behind James Harrison anymore. Since becoming a starter in 2008, Woodley has 44 sacks, averaging 11 a year. For his career he’s got 7 forced fumbles, 7 fumble recoveries, 4 interceptions, and 14 passes defended. From 2008-2010, Woodley was ranked fourth in the league in Pro Football Focus’ pass rushing productivity, just one spot behind his partner in crime Harrison. There is no doubt that Woodley benefitted greatly from the attention Harrison received earlier in his career, but at this point no one is sleeping on Woodley either. Offenses now have to prepare for him just as much as they prepare for Harrison. In the four games Harrison missed to injury last year, Woodley came through with 7.5 sacks.
Woodley is a relentless pass rusher. He has exceptional upper and lower body strength, which is fairly obvious just from looking at his massive arms and tree-trunk thighs. He’s one of the few pass rushers that you’ll ever see truly run over and flat-out pancake an offensive lineman. Complimenting his knack for jumping the snap count, Woodley has excellent initial quickness off the line. He is the type of pass rusher than can’t be defined just in terms of sacks because he gets so many hits and pressures on the quarterback.
Woodley’s got a really effective hand slap in his pass rushing repertoire, to go with a host of other moves and counter-moves. He typically engages tackles before they have the chance to get their hands on him, gets under their pads, shows good leg drive, and collapses the pocket with his bull rush. Not only is Woodley effective exploding off the edge, he also has the ability to shoot the inside gaps on stunts. Between Woodley and Harrison, quarterbacks are really forced to get the ball out quickly against the Steelers, which is the main reason they almost never give up big plays.
6. Aldon Smith
Give him a year or two, and Aldon Smith could very well be the best pass rusher in the NFL. As a Steelers fan, let me assure you, this guy is scary coming off the edge; Smith recorded 2.5 sacks against the Steelers in the national spotlight on Monday Night Football. Given the fact that he looked completely unblockable for the entire second half, it’s actually a little surprising that he didn’t have one or two more sacks. With 14 sacks on the season, Smith very nearly broke Javon Kearse’s rookie single-season record, coming up just a half sack shy of the tie. Smith also recorded 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, and 4 passes defended during his fantastic rookie season. Smith led all defensive players in the league in Pro Football Focus’ pass rushing productivity. On just 337 pass rushes, Smith had 64 combined sacks, QB hits, and QB hurries. For a rookie to be that productive is absolutely astounding, and should be quite frightening to every quarterback in the NFC West that’s going to have to see this guy twice a year.
In Smith, the 49ers appear to have struck gold with a big-time sack machine for years to come. Due to his rare combination of size, speed and power, Smith can run around tackles as well as run right through them. The most remarkable part about Smith’s standout season is that he did it all in a somewhat limited role. In the 14 games Smith saw the field, he split time with fellow outside linebacker Parys Haralson, playing primarily in passing down sub packages. Smith’s next challenge will obviously be keeping his production up when he becomes an every down player in the 49ers’ defense, but I expect Smith’s sack numbers to only increase as he becomes an every down player.
7. John Abraham
John Abraham never really seems to get any credit for anything. Many people don’t realize how many sacks he gets, and those that are aware of his stats often dismiss them by claiming that he only performs in garbage time against bad teams. Needless to say this is an unfair argument. Abraham is a defensive end, and since when are defensive ends judged based exclusively on whether or not they have the “clutch gene?” Yes, 3.5 of Abraham’s sacks last season came on the indecisive Blaine Gabbert in a blowout win, but that doesn’t take anything away from him. He’s not a quarterback, and production is production. Although he’s been tagged as overrated plenty of times throughout his career, Abraham is ironically the most underrated pass rusher on this list in my opinion.
Since he was drafted by the Jets in 2000, Abraham has amassed 112 sacks during his 12 year career. This ranks second among active players only behind Jason Taylor, and first on this list. Now I know what you’re thinking, Abraham shouldn’t be ranked so highly based on his production from over a decade ago. Again, however, this argument simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Abraham has played an equal amount of seasons thus far in his career for both the Jets and Falcons, six and six. Here’s the surprising part, 58.5 sacks have come with the Falcons. That’s over double his career total, indicating that Abraham has only gotten better with age. He also has 38 forced fumbles, six fumble recoveries, and 18 passes defended for his career. From 2008-2010, Abraham finished at the top of the NFL in Pro Football Focus’ ranking of pass rushing productivity. He ranked 10th on the list for 2011, with 9.5 sacks last season.
Abraham might not be as consistent as he once was, but when he’s healthy he is still one of the very best pass rushers in the game. Last year he was hobbled by a groin injury throughout the season, so the Falcons limited his snaps in an effort to keep him fresh. Abraham might not be quite as quick as he once was, but he still fires off the edge with speed, strong hands, and a good first step. He’s always been one of the more creative, balance pass rushers in the league. Like most rushers on this list, Abraham has a great motor. Unlike most rushers on this list, however, Abraham is equally comfortable rushing from the right or left side. His best move is probably his spin to the inside, although it does leave him vulnerable to losing contain every now and then. 2011 was a good year for Abraham, but not his best, so it will be interesting to see whether or not he can return to form next season. He signed a three year deal worth $15 million with the Falcons this offseason.
8. Trent Cole
Why Trent Cole isn’t more of a household name around the NFL is beyond my knowledge. If John Abraham is the most underrated player to crack this list, Cole is probably the most underappreciated. The difference is subtle, but it’s there. Abraham happens to be underrated because he has had his share of detractors throughout his career that have unfairly criticized him, whereas Cole simply just doesn’t get the national recognition he deserves at all. I could understand if he played for a smaller market team, but Cole’s played in Philadelphia since his career began back in 2005.
Cole has recorded 68 sacks in his seven years since being drafted out of Cincinnati. He’s averaging just under 10 sacks per season, and this number has increased to 11 sacks per season over the last five years. Cole also has 12 forced fumbles and 14 passes defended in his career. From 2008-2010, Cole ranked 13th in the league in Pro Football Focus’ pass rushing productivity. Cole jumped up to number two in the rankings in 2011, his best season yet. Not only is Cole productive, he’s also extremely durable; he’s missed just four games in his seven seasons.
Cole has been described by teammate and fellow defensive end Jason Babin as a “manimal, half-animal and half-human.” For all the struggles the Eagles defense had last season, Cole and Babin really can’t be blamed for any of it. Cole’s intensity and motor on the field is on another level. He’s the type of player that fires up all his teammates around him. Cole’s quickness and blazing speed is what makes him really special as a pass rusher. For slower offensive tackles, Cole is all but impossible to block.
9. Jason Babin
For a long time, Jason Babin was viewed as nothing but a first-round bust. Prior to his 2010 season with the Titans, Babin had never even had a season with more than 5 sacks. Originally drafted by the Texans in 2004, Babin struggled there before struggling even more in Kansas City, Seattle, and ironically Philadelphia. With 12.5 sacks in 2010 however, Babin finally had his breakout year. And with 18 sacks for the Eagles last season, Babin probably had his career year. In the last two seasons, the only players with more sacks than Babin’s 30.5 are DeMarcus Ware and Jared Allen. Babin has also forced five fumbles in the last two years. Babin ranked 14th in PFF’s pass rushing productivity from 2008-2010. Last season, he jumped up all the way to number four on the list.
When Titans defensive line coach Jim Washburn left for Philadelphia after Babin’s breakout year in 2010, Babin followed him back to the city where he had previously struggled in 2008. The difference this time around for Babin is that he’s now coached by someone he sees eye to eye with. Washburn employs Babin in a wide 9 technique, meaning he typically lines up outside the tight end and has the freedom to rush the passer. When Babin was in Houston, he was asked to play outside linebacker and drop back into coverage, which never suited him. Now that Babin has a coach in Washburn that understands what he does well and has found a technique for him to thrive in, Babin’s potential is really limitless.
Babin never lacked talent. He’s extremely quick and explosive off the line. With both hands in the dirt in his four-point stance, Babin looks like a sprinter coming out of the blocks at the snap of the football. Washburn has been quoted as saying that other than Kyle Vanden Bosch, he’s never coached a player with a better motor than Babin. He’s noted for having tremendous core strength and flexibility, making him very hard to knock off balance once he gets a head of steam, which he always gets in the wide 9 technique. Washburn really allows Babin to just pin his ears back and go, and in terms of pure speed rushing, he’s one of the best in the league right now.
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