Big names changed teams, and most contenders bolstered their defensive line and outside linebacking corps this offseason. Here is how the NFL's pass-rushing groups looking going into the 2021 season.
The GIF from the "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" finale applies here. Jadeveon Clowney is long gone; J.J. Watt's dominant tenure ended with a February release. D.J. Reader and Benardrick McKinney are out, too. Yet Whitney Mercilus, the sidekick throughout Watt's stay, is still on this retooling team. Mercilus, 31, is going into his 10th season and will do so with numerous new teammates signed to short-term deals. The Texans did trade for Shaq Lawson and signed ex-Jet de facto top sacker Jordan Jenkins. But the team has little of note on the D-line and will use a host of complementary-type edges in this grim-looking season.
Jacksonville boasts first-round edge rushers Josh Allen and K'Lavon Chaisson, and the team added D-linemen Malcolm Brown and Roy Robertson-Harris in free agency. Still, the Jags are coming off their worst defensive performance in franchise history. Allen did post 10.5 sacks as a rookie before missing much of last season's disaster due to injury. Chaisson recorded one sack in 16 games and was not an Urban Meyer pick. Plenty of questions reside here for a team moving to a 3-4, under a rookie NFL defensive coordinator (Joe Cullen), for the first time in its history.
Grady Jarrett remains one of the NFL's best defensive tackles. The Falcons just do not have too much around him. Dante Fowler's numbers declined across the board last season, with his sack decrease (11.5 as a Ram in 2019 to three with the Falcons) the most noticeable. Of Atlanta's pass rushers, only Jarrett topped eight QB hits last season. No high draft picks or glamorous free agents arrived, either, with the previous regime spending plenty to extend Super Bowl LI core players. The new front office's rebuild will begin this season.
The Lions finished last in defensive DVOA in 2020 and are now rebuilding. Trey Flowers is back for a third season on his highly guaranteed contract, and while advanced metrics have regarded the ex-Patriot well, his next eight-sack season will be his first. Flowers also missed extensive time last year, moving Romeo Okwara to the forefront. The elder of the Lions' two pass-rushing Okwaras posted 10 sacks. They still represent Detroit's Flowers edge support, though longtime Aaron Donald wingman Michael Brockers followed GM Brad Holmes to Detroit. He should help the team transition to a 3-4 scheme.
Long hesitant to pay outside talent in free agency, the Bengals suddenly have a defense flush with hired guns. Cincinnati's D-line features UFA additions Trey Hendrickson, Larry Ogunjobi, and D.J. Reader. In their Ogunjobi-Reader- Mike Daniels D-tackle mix, the Bengals have some promise. Hendrickson will take over for Carl Lawson, a solid pressure player Cincy let walk, and the Bengals will hope the ex-Saint is not a contract-year fluke. The former third-round pick's 13.5 sacks in 2020 more than doubled his prior career total. Sam Hubbard stands as the homegrown talent Cincinnati paid, and he will have a lot of veterans flanking him.
Buried in early-timeslot anonymity on a rebuilding team last season, Brian Burns appears poised for a breakout. The 2019 first-round pick was top 10 in pressures last season and has 16.5 sacks in two years. He will team with Haason Reddick, a Temple alum signed to meet Matt Rhule's historically high ex-Owl quota . Finally allowed to be an edge rusher, Reddick enjoyed a mini-breakout in 2020. Carolina's 2020 first-rounder, Derrick Brown, was graded as an upper-crust pass rusher among D-tackles. Carolina's crew could use another piece or two, but upside exists.
The Cowboys allowed the most points in team history in their disastrous 2020. They hired Dan Quinn to lead a rescue effort but did not add much upfront. DeMarcus Lawrence's stats are down since his big-ticket 2019 extension, but he remains a well-regarded edge rusher. Continuing a trend from recent years, uncertainty exists around him. The Cowboys are counting on Randy Gregory (four suspensions) to be a first-time starter seven years into his career. With two D-tackles and Lawrence ailing, Gregory has a major say in how Dallas fares defensively. How the team utilizes linebacker Micah Parsons will matter for its rush, too.
Cycling through ineffective-to-passable edge rushers since 2006's three-way John Abraham trade, the Jets added an intriguing helper here. Carl Lawson's 32 QB hits ranked second in the NFL last season, netting him $30 million fully guaranteed despite modest sack totals as a pro. He and blossoming ex-top-five pick Quinnen Williams will form an intriguing duo. Free agency add Sheldon Rankins was formerly effective, pre-Achilles tear, as a Saint. With perhaps the NFL's worst cornerback depth chart, however, this top-heavy group may not be able to lift the Jets too high in 2021.
Jamal Adams crafted an atypical argument to be by far the NFL's highest-paid safety, having masked non-top-tier coverage skills with historic sack production. Adams' 16 sacks are 10.5 more than the next-closest safety over the past two years. The hybrid player boosts a questionable Seattle pass rush. The Seahawks have veterans Carlos Dunlap and Benson Mayowa back on the edge, with ex-49er sacker Kerry Hyder and youngster Alton Robinson in the mix as well. No true menace can be found in this middling crew, however, and the Jarran Reed release will hurt Seattle's interior rush.
Wrong on Jadeveon Clowney and Vic Beasley last year, Titans GM Jon Robinson better be right on Bud Dupree. The Titans gave the ex-T.J. Watt sidekick $35 million guaranteed, despite Dupree tearing an ACL in November. He will be expected to be the lead rusher now, though Harold Landry is a bit underrated. Tennessee's horrid defensive showing last season obscured Landry's quality work (top 15 in pressures). And D-lineman Jeffery Simmons is poised to leap onto the Pro Bowl tier soon. Denico Autry should provide solid support upfront as well. The Titans' pass rush is improved; Dupree will determine how much.
Giants GM Dave Gettleman's outside linebacker apathy has largely continued, though he did finally make a notable investment here (second-rounder Azeez Ojulari). This hurts the Giants, but Patrick Graham coaxed frisky work from last year's defense -- which was largely devoid of edge help. The Giants' strength resides inside, where Dexter Lawrence, a now-wealthy Leonard Williams, and slightly underrated B.J. Hill are present. If Williams can sustain his contract-year surge (11.5 sacks, 30 QB hits), this is a competent crew. If he reverts to his previous form, the Giants' issues at the edge will be more noticeable.
Colts GM Chris Ballard has been proven right on a few second-round picks; he now needs the ones on his defensive line to show up. Inconsistent second-rounders Kemoko Turay and Ben Banogu remain in the mix for the Colts, who used another Round 2 pick on a defensive end (Purdue's Dayo Odeyingbo, who is coming off an Achilles tear). This matters more because the Colts let Justin Houston walk in free agency and will depend on first-round rookie Kwity Paye as perhaps their top outside rusher. While DeForest Buckner offsets some of these concerns, Indianapolis needs a couple of its young defensive ends to blossom this year.
Buffalo features an interesting old guys/young guys setup on its defensive line. Mario Addison and longtime edge anchor Jerry Hughes remain, and they are now mentoring three first- or second-round picks from the past two drafts. A.J. Epenesa, Gregory Rousseau, and Boogie Basham are the early-twentysomethings at D-end here. Rousseau is the top piece, being a first-rounder, but he was a one-year wonder at Miami who opted out in 2020. It is time for top-10 pick Ed Oliver to justify his draft slot. The talented three-technique will ideally benefit from 2020 opt-out nose tackle Star Lotulelei returning and taking on double-teams.
The player expected to salvage the Khalil Mack trade -- 2019 No. 4 overall pick Clelin Ferrell -- is on track to be a backup after two underwhelming years. Yannick Ngakoue's arrival will perhaps allow Ferrell to regroup, but the scrutinized-in-the-moment pick spotlights the Raiders' decision-making issues. However, 2019 fourth-rounder Maxx Crosby has over-delivered to lessen the blow of Ferrell's letdown. Crosby should benefit from Ngakoue's westward trek. Carl Nassib is also in a good place as a rotational rusher. The Raiders' Solomon Thomas flier could be interesting as well; he and Quinton Jefferson bolster Vegas' inside crew.
The Ravens continued their trend of not paying for edge rushers, swapping out expensive free agents Matt Judon and Yannick Ngakoue for low-cost summer add Justin Houston and first-round pick Odafe Oweh. The latter's zero-sack 2020 at Penn State concerns, but the Ravens generally have it together in identifying young talent. And Houston played well for the Colts over the past two years; he stayed healthy for a change, too. Calais Campbell is now 35, while Derek Wolfe is 31. They were quality starters in 2020. Baltimore blitzed at an NFL-high rate in 2020. This and a strong secondary will aid its new-look edge corps.
The Chargers employ a top-five edge rusher, albeit one who has run into trouble staying healthy in recent years. Joey Bosa working as the centerpiece of a Brandon Staley defense indeed tantalizes, but the team needs complementary pieces to reveal themselves. The Bolts moved on from Melvin Ingram and will replace him with fourth-year edge Uchenna Nwosu, a spot starter thus far. First-round D-lineman Jerry Tillery graded outside Pro Football Focus' top 100 at edge rusher in his second season. With Justin Herbert putting the Chargers back on the contender tier, Staley faces a key task in Year 1.
The Dolphins punted on two 2020 signings quickly, jettisoning both Kyle Van Noy and Shaq Lawson. This leaves 2020 breakout edge rusher Emmanuel Ogbah solo in terms of proven ability, but the Dolphins did use the second of their 2021 first-round picks on Miami defensive end Jaelan Phillips. The team also quietly pried defensive tackle Adam Butler (10 sacks over the past two years) from the Patriots. While Miami needs more from ex-first-rounder Christian Wilkins, only Baltimore blitzed more in 2020. Deep at cornerback with questions upfront, the Dolphins may need to stay on that course.
Already proving unworthy of a $21 million-per-year deal, Frank Clark's two-arrest offseason -- both on gun charges -- has created a major issue for the Chiefs' pass rush. Kansas City's top edge presence will be suspended this year or next, possibly for more than six games. Not much exists around Clark at defensive end. Fortunately for the AFC champs, Chris Jones is one of the NFL's best defensive players. The ace D-tackle will be tried some at end, though moving star players to new spots is risky, and has a strong sub-package inside rush mate in ex-Seahawk Jarran Reed. Clark's status still overshadows everything else.
This placement factors in defensive tackle David Onyemata's six-game suspension. Cam Jordan, however, has never missed a game in 10 seasons and remains one of the NFL's premier D-line anchors. Although the Saints were wise to pass on paying contract-year dynamo Trey Hendrickson, they need Marcus Davenport to show consistency opposite Jordan. The Saints also used a first-round pick on Houston D-end Payton Turner, though that is a potential-over-production move, and have ex-Wisconsin rush standout Zack Baun at linebacker. Demario Davis also brings elite blitz ability from his linebacker post, giving the Saints more options.
The Vikings' pass rush will look wildly different from 2020 when the team finished as by far the worst defense in Mike Zimmer's tenure. Not only is Danielle Hunter back from his neck injury, but Minnesota will also throw one of the best defensive tackle mixes -- led by 2020 opt-out Michael Pierce, free agent Dalvin Tomlinson and a reacquired Sheldon Richardson -- at teams. The NFL's youngest player to reach 50 sacks, Hunter will still be vital to a team with more questions at D-end than tackle. Minnesota used third- and fourth-round picks on edge rushers this year but cannot afford a prolonged Hunter absence.
Myles Garrett's presence gives the Browns' pass rush a high floor, and the team devoted almost all of its offseason resources to repairing its defense. Garrett will make life easier for Jadeveon Clowney, a two-year Browns target who may have one more chance to prove he is worthy of a lucrative long-term deal. Clowney shows up more in run defense but has a rare opportunity to stand out statistically after some down years. Rookie linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah being used in a hybrid capacity could factor in here too. D-tackle addition Malik Jackson will also be pivotal after the exits of Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi.
Perpetually finding ways to outsmart teams, the Patriots tried again this year by splurging when most teams were forced to skimp. Pro Bowler Matt Judon has 54 QB hits over the past two seasons, and ex-Bill Belichick chess piece Kyle Van Noy is back alongside fellow returning occasional rusher Dont'a Hightower. Same as it ever was. They join too-far-under-the-radar edge Chase Winovich (10th in pressures last year) to form a crew Belichick can certainly work with. Second-round defensive tackle Christian Barmore could be a high-ceiling cog inside. Belichick has turned worse cadres into suitable pass rushes.
After carrying bad quarterback situations for years, the Bears' defense can see more promise on that side of the ball. But Justin Fields' arrival comes with each of Chicago's top three pass-rushing principals -- Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Robert Quinn -- north of 30. An injury to any will be an issue for a top-heavy rush, but Mack -- whom Pro Football Focus ranked as its No. 1 edge defender last season, despite T.J. Watt's monster year -- remains an ideal building-block player. Long-term, the Bears need reinforcements. But for 2021, this foundation may still have enough.
While Garrett, Bosa, and T.J. Watt represent formidable defensive anchors, none has a chance to be the best ever at his position. Aaron Donald does, and a wide gap between him and the NFL's second-best defensive tackle remains. The future Hall of Famer helped Dante Fowler and Leonard Floyd get paid, and the Rams kept Floyd as Donald's chief edge support. The exits of Michael Brockers and DC Brandon Staley will hurt, and -- per usual -- the Rams are not particularly deep here. It is just difficult to drop a Donald-centric pass rush too far, even as the Rams' inside-rushing terror turns 30.
The Packers' defensive production has not matched their talent level, leading to DC Mike Pettine's ouster. Replacement Joe Barry inherits one of the NFL's best edge-rushing contingents, with former first-rounder Rashan Gary supplementing the starting Smiths (Za'Darius and Preston). Gary and Preston Smith offer strong support to Za'Darius Smith, who has become one of the league's top rushers after scratching the surface as a Raven. Kenny Clark provides stability as one of the game's best 3-4 ends. With Aaron Rodgers back, this group will factor into the Super Bowl LVI chase prominently.
Caught between eras, the Eagles still boast one of the NFL's top defensive lines. It is realistic to wonder if Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham will be around the next time Philly plans to contend. But they will have plenty of help this year. Washington all-time sack leader Ryan Kerrigan, 33, joins the Eagles' 33- and 30-year-old stalwarts. D-ends Josh Sweat and Derrick Barnett also contributed to the 2020 Eagles' 49 sacks (No. 3 in the NFL), tallying 11.5 between them; both are in contract years. The Eagles falling out of contention early will prompt many teams to call GM Howie Roseman with offers for D-linemen.
Von Miller and Bradley Chubb have not played together since Week 4 of the 2019 season, leaving Vic Fangio and the perennially QB-deficient Broncos shorthanded. The elite pair is healthy now, leading one of the NFL's best defenses. Chubb is two years removed from his ACL tear and gunning for a big contract. He and Miller's presences will benefit an underrated defensive front. PFF graded three Bronco D-linemen -- Dre'Mont Jones, DeShawn Williams, and bat down extraordinaire Shelby Harris -- as top-30 players at their spots last year, while edge Malik Reed had one of the quieter eight-sack seasons in memory. There is a lot to like here.
The Cardinals have assembled the makings of a historic pass-rushing duo, but there are obstacles to clear before unleashing it. Hoping to tack on a few more good years to an all-time resume, J.J. Watt has seen a hamstring injury sideline him for weeks. Injuries have been a bit of a problem for the future Hall of Famer. The Cards have also irked Chandler Jones, a two-time All-Pro, on the financial front. If Arizona can get this pair (feat. Markus Golden) on the field, few teams can match their rush. D-end Jordan Phillips (9.5 sacks in 2019) will benefit from the Watt-Jones duo, too, but there are a few ifs in this Cards equation.
With the NFC West looking like the league's best division, San Francisco's defensive front will be one of the most important NFL position groups. Nick Bosa and Dee Ford are coming off injuries, and Ford is potentially playing to extend his injury-plagued career this season. This is not the 2019 49ers D-line. But Bosa was one of the most dominant defensive rookies in modern NFL history, and first-round pick Javon Kinlaw showed flashes replacing DeForest Buckner in the team's lost year. Not part of the 2020 49ers' injury ward, Arik Armstead will be vital as a supporting caster. D-tackle Zach Kerr was also an underrated free-agent pickup.
The Steelers have led the NFL in sacks in each of the past four seasons and return the player with the most pressures over the past two (T.J. Watt). Watt's 61 pressures were 16 more than anyone else last year; he probably deserved Defensive Player of the Year acclaim. The Steelers signed Melvin Ingram and have Alex Highsmith (15 sacks as a college senior) bidding to become the next quality Pittsburgh B-side edge rusher. Inside, it does not get much better than Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt. Both ranked in the top 25 in pressures as well. Heyward and Ingram are 32 but can still be penciled in as viable rushers.
Capping off the best nucleus-retention effort in free agency history required the Buccaneers to re-sign both Shaq Barrett and Ndamukong Suh. With Jason Pierre-Paul back and the Bucs using their first-round pick on edge defender Joe Tryon, there is little not to like here. Barrett and JPP both stopped Aaron Rodgers from making his second Super Bowl and derailed Patrick Mahomes' bid to win his second, elevating this defense's place in history. The Bucs also feature Vita Vea clearing space for their rushers and All-Pro-in-training Devin White (nine 2020 sacks), creating an all-around corps that will be difficult to contain.
They have not proven as much as the Steelers or Bucs, but the Washington pass rushers supply more collective upside. Although Washington has dropped from five first-round D-linemen to four, with Ryan Kerrigan now in Philly, the team boasts the NFL's deepest D-tackle group and the defensive end with the scariest ceiling. Oh, and Montez Sweat has 16 sacks over his first two seasons. Chase Young will generate wider rush lanes for his teammates, and in addition to first-rounders Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne, Washington has Matt Ioaniddis back after injury and Tim Settle coming off the bench after a five-sack year. This group needs a good nickname immediately.
Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.