There have been few NFL climates as good as today's for pass-rushers. The league has responded to the increase in volume and production of the passing game with defenders who can affect the game with pressure. The game has rarely seen so many productive and impactful edge rushers playing at the same time.
Here, we are going to rank them into tiers. Unlike other positions, this will leave off a lot of quality edge defenders, but such is the depth in today’s league.
Tier 1: DPOY Candidates
Few NFL arguments are as explosive as the one surrounding who the better edge rusher is: T.J. Watt or Myles Garrett. Watt is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, but Garrett posted the better PFF grade and pressure rate and had several other stats go in his favor last season. Ultimately, both players are phenomenal and have been so for several years now, but Watt gets the top spot on the rankings simply for maintaining his peak for a longer run of games.
Between a suspension for hitting Mason Rudolph with his own helmet and a bout of COVID-19 blunting his effectiveness for a stretch of the 2020 season, Garrett just hasn’t been able to maintain the scintillating run of play that Watt has over as long of a span. In any given game or even season, though, Garrett is well capable of being better.
Over the past two seasons, these two edge rushers rank No. 1 and No. 2 in PFF grade, with just one-tenth of a grading point separating them (91.9 for Garrett to 91.8 for Watt). They rank first and third in pass-rush win rate, and no edge rusher has more sacks than Watt.
Khalil Mack continues to be among the league’s best edge defenders and has the highest PFF run-defense grade of any edge rusher over the past two seasons (90.6).
Micah Parsons was a real Defensive Player of the Year candidate last season as a rookie thanks in large part to his pass-rushing prowess. Ostensibly still an off-ball linebacker, Parsons generated the best pressure rate of any pass-rusher in the league (22.4%) and was doing so as a true edge rusher, rather than simply taking advantage of favorable matchups against running backs. Parsons may not play as much as an edge rusher, but he’s already shown he’s an elite one if he does line up there.
The Bosa brothers have become dominant NFL forces just the way they were in college, with never much to separate the two. Both boast elite PFF grades and elite pressure totals over their NFL careers and are candidates for dominant seasons at any given time.
Maxx Crosby had a true breakout 2021 season and led the NFL in pressures, becoming only the third player to post more than 100 in a season since 2006 (101). Crosby faced a very weak run of right tackles all season, but he still remained just as productive against better opposition. He now needs to show that wasn’t a flash in the pan.
Tier 2: Young rushers with huge potential
These rushers have flashed elite potential, but now they need to kick on and join the first tier of truly dominant players on a consistent basis. Injury robbed us of a decent chunk of Chase Young’s second season, but even before that point, he wasn’t building on his excellent rookie season, with lower PFF grades and pressure rates. Young was arguably the best pass-rushing prospect to enter the NFL since at least Garrett, and he now needs to show that was deserved praise.
Rashan Gary finally realized his immense potential last season, earning an 89.3 overall PFF grade, which was good enough to rank inside the top five at the position. Gary had 81 pressures, more than his previous two seasons combined, and now looks like he could be a true difference-maker going forward.
Brian Burns has already reached that level but is evidence of how dangerous it can be to assume it will continue linearly. After he recorded double-digit sacks in 2020 and an 86.9 PFF pass-rushing grade, his grade slipped to 73.1 and he had six fewer pressures to his name despite more than 50 extra pass-rushing opportunities. Burns has elite rush ability but needs to get back to his best play.
Tier 3: Injury/other concerns
12. CARL LAWSON, NEW YORK JETS
Danielle Hunter has proven to be an elite pass-rusher at his best, but he has now battled injuries for multiple seasons in a row. We have seen just seven games and 334 snaps of Hunter since his dominant 2019 season, and while he is still just 27 years old, that injury history is concerning until he can return to the kind of play that saw him rack up 88 pressures in a single season.
Similarly, Carl Lawson was a big free agent acquisition of the Jets a year ago but ruptured his Achilles before he could take the field. He has the potential to be a high-end pass-rusher, with PFF pass-rushing grades above 80.0 in two of the past three years, but an Achilles injury is a major red flag for a player whose position relies on explosiveness.
Za'Darius Smith also missed almost all of last season before finally returning for the Packers late in the year for their playoff run. He needs to show he can get back to his league-leading pressure performance, this time in Minnesota.
Randy Gregory’s concern isn’t injuries as much as it is suspensions, given his history. He has kept it on the straight and narrow lately, but it would be difficult to completely ignore his career before the past two years of breakout play, or the fact that his NFL resume includes just 1,474 NFL snaps, only around half of which have been plus play.
Tier 4: Underrated veterans
Cameron Jordan has spent a career being underrated, even despite going to seven Pro Bowls. He has been a first-team All-Pro just once, but there was a stretch of multiple years where he had a good claim to be the best edge defender in the game. His overall PFF grade hasn't dropped below 80.0 since 2015.
Demarcus Lawrence is underrated because of low sack totals in his past three seasons, but his pressure rates, run defense prowess and PFF grades have remained elite. Sometimes sacks come with those data points, and other times they don’t. Lawrence is still an elite playmaker when healthy.
Trey Hendrickson backed up his career year in New Orleans with another one in Cincinnati, justifying the buy-high free agent signing the team made with a player coming off career-highs in grade and sacks. Hendrickson consistently generates pressure and has been good at converting those to sacks.
John Franklin-Meyers may never generate a lot of sacks, but he notched 50 or more pressures in each of the past two seasons and his PFF grade has improved each year of his career. With more help around him on the defensive line, he could be in line for another career year that might earn him a little more recognition.
Tier 5: Declining forces
22. VON MILLER, BUFFALO BILLS
We saw last season that Miller still has some juice. He enjoyed his first double-digit pressure game in multiple years and earned a 93.0 PFF grade during the Rams' playoff run to a Super Bowl. Miller may be a declining force, but he is declining from a position of being the best edge rusher of his generation, so he has plenty of room to slip and still be a significant problem for opposing offenses.
Chandler Jones' run defense is falling off, but his past two predominantly healthy years featured pass-rushing grades of at least 87.7 and he recorded double-digit sacks in each. He can still get after the quarterback, but at this point in his career, he may have sacrificed his ability to be an all-around player to maintain that level. His PFF run-defense grade was just 40.4 last season.
Jerry Hughes is virtually a guaranteed 50 pressures to any defense he’s on, even at this age. He tallied 55 for the Bills last season and has averaged that figure over the past nine years. Hughes is still an effective edge rusher.
A lot rests on the shoulders of J.J. Watt, as the Cardinals let Jones leave this offseason and only really replaced him with developmental rookies in the middle rounds of the draft. Watt can still be very effective when healthy, but that becomes a larger caveat with each passing season.
Tier 6: Need to live up to potential
Marcus Davenport put together a career year in 2021 but has still yet to emerge as a truly dominant every-down force, which is what he needed to become to justify the draft trade the Saints made to acquire him in the first place. Davenport has played more than 500 snaps in a season only once in four years and has never recorded more than 51 pressures in a single season. Those are solid numbers, but he needs to do more than solid, and he looks capable of it.
Jadeveon Clowney has been searching for a big-money, long-term contract for years now but never manages to earn one. He is capable of stretches of elite play, but they never sustain, and his overall PFF grade has declined each season since he left Houston.
Montez Sweat has been an excellent run defender in the NFL and flashed his pass-rush potential, but he needs to put it together more consistently.