Positional Rankings: Edge rushers
1:04 | NFL
Positional Rankings: Edge rushers
Friday June 24th, 2016

On the defensive side of the ball, the money-makers reside on the edge. Whether it’s setting the boundary against the run or throwing a monkey wrench into the well-laid plans of the league’s precious passing games, the men who roam the edge of the front seven are arguably the most impactful players on a down-to-down basis on that side of the ball. Whether they are defensive ends in 4–3 fronts or 3–4 outside linebackers, the game’s best edge rushers have the same traits: the strength and length to shed the blocks of bigger offensive tackles and make an impact in run defense, and the breathtaking speed and power to disrupt the pocket, affect the quarterback’s timing and ruin offensive game plans.

We attempted to rank the best of the best coming off the edge in the latest edition of SI’s position-by-position NFL player rankings. It was not an easy job. Every team and scheme is different, and no two players get the same number of opportunities to rush the passer. Sacks are overrated in general, but some players enjoy the advantages of playing with great coverage players behind them. In the end, there were probably about 20 players that had legitimate arguments for the list.

Just missed the cut

Clay Matthews, Packers: He temporarily moved to inside linebacker to fill a hole in Green Bay, but Matthews could very well regain his Defensive Player of the Year production now that he’s expected back full time at outside linebacker. Will he stay healthy? That’s another issue. For now, his status is too uncertain to crack this elite tier. Just missing the cut on just missing the cut: Everson Griffin, Tamba Hali, Mario Williams and Ryan Kerrigan. Robert Quinn (back) and Cameron Wake (Achilles) are coming off painful injuries and are expected to regain their dominant form, but it’s impossible to say that for sure.

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The next big thing

Jadeveon Clowney, Texans: He wasn’t the clear No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft for nothing. Clowney is a next-level physical specimen for the position: he’s bigger, faster and more explosive than anyone else. He just hasn’t been healthy, playing 11 of a possible 32 regular season games in two years as a pro. What he showed at the end of last season—near-elite play against the run with a lot of promise rushing the passer, backed up by his 4.5 sacks in nine starts—leaves us and the Texans wanting to see him on the field a lot more.

Jones finished fifth in the league with 12.5 sacks last season, but in March the Patriots traded him to the Cardinals to avoid paying him. That could be viewed as a little bit of a red flag, since teams rarely part with in-their-prime pass rushers (Jones is 26). From a football perspective, keep in mind that the Patriots, more than most teams, expect their edge players to perform many different tasks from play to play: chip the running back or the tight end, play the run first, etc. They are rarely asked to pin their ears back and get after the passer, even on pass-rushing downs, so there’s reason to believe Jones will thrive in Arizona’s more aggressive scheme. Then again, maybe his weaknesses were hidden in New England.

Another high-profile player in a new place, Jackson’s place on this list is very much a projection. We’ll have to see where he winds up in Jacksonville, but all signs point to Jackson playing 4–3 end and then moving to tackle in subpackages, similar to how the Seahawks use Michael Bennett. What we know is this: despite his breakout playoff performance, Jackson has been on the come-up for a few years as an interior pass rusher. He’s improved every season rushing from the edge and against the run. As long as the six-year deal worth up to $85.5 million he signed this March doesn’t go to his head, Jackson should continue to dominate for the Jaguars. 

His run defense certainly leaves something to be desired, but there’s little doubt that Ansah is a dominant edge player after finishing third in the league in 2015 with 14.5 sacks. He had very little in the way of a supporting cast in the front seven after Ndamukong Suh left in free agency and DeAndre Levy suffered a season-ending injury, and Ansah still had a career year. He’s also still learning the game, so the talk among Lions coaches that Ansah could approach 20 sacks this season is not out of the question. Personally, we’d rather see him improve against the run.

When McPhee bolted the linebacker-friendly confines of Baltimore for the Bears last year in free agency, he moved out of the shadow of Ravens teammates Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. After a tremendous all-around season at outside linebacker in Chicago, McPhee should no longer be a secret. Between snuffing out the run (his forte) and chasing down quarterbacks (PFF had McPhee as the game’s best pass rusher on a per-snap basis with 45 total pressures in 205 snaps), McPhee has a strong case as last year’s best free-agent signing.

He hasn’t received the same level of publicity the past two seasons, as the Saints bottomed out on defense, but Jordan has continued to be a standout player despite being moved all over the field. Jordan is the rare big-bodied defender who combines quick-twitch athleticism with a non-stop motor. PFF counted 70 total quarterback pressures for Jordan last season. That’s a ton, especially for someone who gets a lot of attention. The Saints brought in more talent on defense this off-season to help Jordan be even better this year.

Bennett’s 25.5 sacks in the three seasons since he left the Buccaneers for the Seahawks won’t blow anyone away, but if there’s a poster child for the misleading nature of that statistic, it would be Bennett. He is a disrupter, pure and simple. Whether he is making a guard miss by jumping to the outside with his exceptional feet or quickly dipping inside a tackle, Bennett has rare athletic ability for his spot on the defensive line. According to PFF, Bennett is second to only J.J. Watt in total quarterback pressures (292) over the past four seasons. He also happens to be elite at stopping the run as well.

When the Giants signed the former Dolphin to a four-year, $85 million contract with $40 million guaranteed, most NFL fans reacted with a collective, “Who?!” But he was definitely worthy of being one of the first players plucked in free agency. We’ll have to see whether he was worth that coin. If Vernon continues on his current trajectory, he will be. Like fellow high-priced free agent Malik Jackson, Vernon has been slowly improving since 2012. He was already an elite run defender and a good pass rusher when given snaps, but Vernon finally got the chance to show what he could do last season. He was at his best when Miami lost Cameron Wake to injury: PFF counted 57 total pressures and 33 stops over the final eight games. Those are full-season stats for most players. 

When healthy, Houston is arguably the best edge player in the league. He had 50.5 sacks in 54 games before a knee injury in the second half of 2015 slowed him down. He was thought to be on the right track to a full recovery after a postseason clean-up procedure, but instead he ended up needing ACL surgery, and an early-season return is in doubt. What’s not in question: Before the surgery, Houston was the most dominant outside linebacker in the game. His blend of speed and power along with his rare flexibility make him nearly impossible to block with just one man. Pity the offensive tackle that falls victim to Houston’s patented dip-and-rip pass rush move.

All you really have to do is put on the film for the Broncos’ final four games, during which Miller ran roughshod against the Patriots and Panthers on the way to Super Bowl 50 MVP honors. According to PFF, Miller had 105 total quarterback pressures in 2015 (including the postseason), which was far and away the league lead. Miller, who had 11 sacks in the regular season, may be a bit of a wild card off the field, but that’s of no consequence to these rankings, which reward consistent elite play.

After a very good rookie season in which he showed wisdom beyond his years as a run defender, Mack turned in the pass rush stats to round out his game as a dual-threat terror last season when he tallied 15 sacks, which was tops among edge players and trailed only J.J. Watt for the league lead. At this point, there’s no edge defender better at defending the run at the point of attack than Mack. The trait that stands out is his tremendously low pad level, which is a big problem for the taller tackles because it allows his to get inside and under their long arms. Combine that with strength and an explosive burst, and the NFL’s next great edge disruptor has arrived.

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