News & Analysis

Most improved pass-rushing units in the NFL this offseason

PFF has been at the forefront of arguing that coverage is more important than pass rush over the last several seasons (exhibits A, B and C can be found here). But it's true that pass rush and coverage are intertwined. Good coverage helps a pass rush, and good pass rush helps coverage defenders. Dismissing pass rush entirely shouldn’t be the takeaway from the “coverage > pass rush” line of thought, particularly given the stability associated with good pass rushers from year to year, which isn’t necessarily the case with coverage defenders.

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With that in mind, these five teams improved their pass-rushing units the most through both free agency and the 2020 NFL Draft.

1. Miami Dolphins

Key Additions: EDGE Kyle Van Noy, EDGE Shaq Lawson, EDGE Curtis Weaver, DI Raekwon Davis

Key Losses: EDGE Charles Harris, EDGE Taco Charlton, DI John Jenkins

As with the offensive line, it would have been a disappointment had the Dolphins not shown up on this list. To be fair, their pass rush still has a long way to go, and some of the pieces they added are risks. The group will certainly be much better in 2020, though.

Van Noy reunites with Brian Flores, his former position coach in New England, who will try to bring some semblance of pass rush to a team that finished the 2019 season with a pressure rate of just 25.5% (over three percentage points lower than any other team in the NFL). Van Noy is coming off a career-year in his first season as a full-time edge defender with the New England Patriots. He put up a career-high 84.2 overall grade with 58 quarterback pressures, over 20 more than his previous high in 2018. We’ve seen in the past that versatile players like Van Noy can struggle after leaving New England. But Flores’ familiarity with him should help smooth the transition to Miami.

Lawson is a former first-round pick of the Buffalo Bills whose time there was largely a disappointment, but he is arriving in Miami on an upward trend at 25 years old. Lawson earned a career-high 68.7 pass-rushing grade with the Bills in 2019, and his 38 quarterback pressures were also the most in a single season for his career. The Dolphins will be hoping that trend continues. Even if he turns in a similar performance, though, it would be better than anything the Dolphins had off the edge in 2019.

Miami also added a few defensive linemen in the draft who could figure into things early in Davis and Weaver. Weaver is the one who is most interesting from a pass-rushing standpoint — he was a tremendous value in the fifth round as the 26th overall ranked player on our board heading into the draft. Weaver may lack elite athleticism and physical traits, but he has good bend off the edge and a track record of absurd production at Boise State, coming off back-to-back seasons with 90-plus pass-rushing grades. I included Davis here since he was taken in the second round, but it’s hard to see him contributing much as a pass rusher. His main contributions will come in the run game.

Given the complete lack of viable pass-rushing options available in Miami prior to free agency and the draft, they are much improved at this point, even if there are still some question marks heading into next season.

2. Washington Redskins

Key Additions: EDGE Chase Young

Key Losses: N/A

The Redskins didn’t attack their pass-rushing group with volume. They just added the best pass-rushing prospect that PFF has seen since we began to chart college football in 2014. In doing so, they did enough to land themselves high on this list.

It’s easy to get carried away with listing Young’s accolades, and for good reason. What he did at the college level is absurd. His 95.6 pass-rushing grade since 2018 ranks first among all FBS edge defenders, as do his 131 quarterback pressures. His pass-rush win rate (22.8%) and pressure rate (17.6%) both trail only Curtis Weaver among qualifying players despite Young facing significantly stiffer competition in the Big Ten than Weaver did in the Mountain West Conference. As the PFF Draft Guide notes, Young has it all — hands, burst, power, length, size and flexibility. Edge defenders don’t often hit the ground running in their first season, but there is no reason to believe that Young won’t do just that.

It wasn’t exactly a pressing need for the Redskins with Montez Sweat and Ryan Kerrigan already on the roster, but, regardless, Young figures to quickly become one of the best edge defenders in the NFL and Washington’s pass rush will be better for it.

3. Detroit Lions

Key Additions: EDGE Julian Okwara, LB Jamie Collins, DI Danny Shelton

Key Losses: EDGE Devon Kennard, DI A’Shawn Robinson, DI Damon Harrison, DI Mike Daniels

The Lions’ addition of Trey Flowers last offseason and their subsequent lack of any consistent pass rush in 2019 goes to show that one talented pass rusher is not going to change a defense. Flowers played well, generating a pass-rushing grade of 78.8 with 62 total pressures in a full season of action, but the Lions’ pressure rate as a team of 29.2% ranked just 30th among all 32 NFL defenses.

The addition of Okwara in place of Kennard should give a boost to the pass rush, giving the Lions two real threats off the edge moving forward. It’s surprising that Okwara fell to the third round given the lack of high-end options in this class and considering Okwara’s physical traits, which NFL teams often covet. He’s a player who landed at No. 10 on Bruce Feldman’s Freaks List heading into the 2019 college season, reportedly clocking at 21 miles per hour while also being able to put up 27 bench reps at the NFL Combine despite 34-plus inch arms. Okwara backed up that physical ability with pass-rushing grades of 85.0 or higher in both 2018 and 2019. It may not be immediate, but I’d bet on him panning out as an effective pass rusher.

In free agency, the Lions brought in several players from the Patriots who could help their pass rush, though they wouldn’t be the first players you’d think of. Collins has been one of the best blitzing off-ball linebackers in the NFL for much of his career. He showed it in New England before being traded to the Cleveland Browns, and he showed it again last season with the Patriots as one of just two linebackers with 30 or more quarterback pressures. His pass-rushing grade of 76.8 was a top-five mark at the position.

Shelton, meanwhile, has graded out better as a run defender than pass rusher every season of his career… until last season. His 73.3. pass-rushing grade in 2019 was the highest of his career. The Lions shouldn’t expect much from Shelton in the way of getting after the quarterback, but an encore of his 2019 performance would be welcome, nonetheless.

4. Atlanta Falcons

Key Additions: EDGE Dante Fowler Jr., DI Marlon Davidson, EDGE Charles Harris

Key Losses: EDGE Vic Beasley Jr., EDGE Adrian Clayborn, DI Jack Crawford

The Falcons were another team that struggled to generate a consistent pass rush in 2019 despite having one of the better defensive linemen in the NFL (Grady Jarrett) on their roster. Beasley never truly panned out after several promising seasons to open his career, and there just weren’t enough players on that defensive line who threatened opposing offensive lines.

Atlanta began to remedy that by bringing in Fowler at one of the starting edge spots, continuing the effort to start an entire lineup of former first-round draft picks. Fowler didn’t exactly kick things off on the right foot early in his career, but he has improved as a pass rusher each season since being taken third overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars, culminating in a 67-pressure, 73.4 pass-rushing grade season with the Los Angeles Rams in 2019. He wasn’t quite as dominant as his sack numbers would suggest, but the steady improvement from Fowler over the course of his career is promising. And at just 25 years old, the Falcons will be banking on continued improvement from their prized free agent acquisition.

Davidson is an interesting prospect in that he played almost exclusively off the edge with the Auburn Tigers over his four-year career as a starter there, but he projects to kick inside in the NFL given his size and lack of elite burst. Davidson does have some impressive lateral agility and quickness, though, which should serve him well as a pass rusher inside. He’ll look to build on a career-high 83.8 pass-rushing grade in 2019 at Auburn. Davidson’s addition, along with Fowler and a flyer on someone like Harris, should leave the Falcons in a better place from a pass-rush perspective in 2020.

5. Indianapolis Colts

Key Additions: DI DeForest Buckner, DI Robert Windsor, DI Sheldon Day

Key Losses: EDGE Jabaal Sheard, DI Margus Hunt

Indianapolis made one of the bigger splashes of the offseason when it traded the 13th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft for Buckner, one of the better young interior defenders in the NFL. The Colts already added one high-level pass rusher in Justin Houston (81.9 pass-rushing grade in 2019) last season, and now they have two along the defensive line.

Buckner has recorded 50 or more quarterback pressures while picking up pass-rushing grades of 73.0 or higher in each of the past three seasons. His 81 combined sacks and hits since entering the league in 2016 are tied for second at the position behind only Aaron Donald. He’s going to give them an interior pass rush that they simply didn’t have in 2019, and that should help open things up for the other players along the defensive line.

The Windsor selection could result in some additional interior pressure if nothing else. He’s slight for the interior, which might mean he’ll struggle on early downs against the run, but there’s a real chance that he could turn into a rotational pass rusher on the inside given his pass-rushing tools. Windsor is coming off an 80.5 pass-rushing grade with Penn State last season.

The Colts still don’t have an option they know they can rely on at the edge spot across from Houston — with the door open to a potential veteran signing like Jadeveon Clowney or Everson Griffen — but they've improved considerably as they look to compete in an open AFC South in 2020.

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