When we decided to put a name to the player awards that we are debuting in our expanded awards week at PFF this year, we were looking for players who epitomized the highest levels of performance in each attribute. When we thought of great pass-rushers there are of course a wealth of players to choose from, but we decided that the best choice would be the late, great Reggie White.
White’s career pre-dates our site by seven years, but his place among the league’s all-time great defenders and pass-rushers is without question. The Reggie White Award will be given to the pass-rusher who performs best over the course of the season at getting after the quarterback, regardless of position.
Here is a look at our winner and three runners-up:
Aaron Donald, DT, St. Louis Rams
Last season gave a hint of what Donald could do as a pass-rusher and all-around defensive wrecking ball, but it still required a step up from his impressive rookie season to rank alongside J.J. Watt as one of the league's best defenders, and Donald did just that. Working purely as a 3-technique defensive tackle, Donald racked up pressure stats that put the vast majority of edge defenders to shame (11 sacks, 26 hits, 42 hurries), earning the highest pass-rushing grade for a defensive tackle in PFF history.
More than just the volume of pressure he produced, it was the speed with which Donald was putting opposing quarterbacks under pressure from an interior alignment that helped him earn such a high grade this season. Donald produced on crucial downs (32 pressures on third and fourth downs), he drew holding penalties (four on pass plays) and caused havoc with relentless consistency from his defensive tackle spot.
J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans
At this point we are completely out of superlatives for Watt, who was only slowed as a pass-rusher this season by playing through a broken hand for two weeks. In any other season, Watt would again have been unrivaled as the league’s premier pass-rusher, but a huge step forward from two other players left Watt in a crowd atop this award list. Watt’s 91 pressures this season — he fared well not just from the interior but out on the edge, where he played more — takes his total over the last four seasons to 378. That is a remarkable tally and a gold standard for consistency among NFL pass-rushers.
Khalil Mack, OLB, Oakland Raiders
Mack’s performance against the Broncos in Week 14 will live long in the memory of Raiders fans, and rightfully so. His five-sack, nine-pressure display earned the second-highest single game grade an edge defender has earned in nine seasons here at PFF, but that was simply the high point of a remarkably consistent season. Mack took the step from being a consistently productive pass-rusher to being a consistently destructive one in his second NFL season.
Olivier Vernon, DE, Miami Dolphins
Entering the season as the third-best pass-rusher on his own defensive line, Vernon finished it as the highest-graded pass-rusher in the NFL over the second half of the season. After Cameron Wake was lost to a season-ending injury in Week 8, Vernon racked up 57 pressures (eight sacks, 24 hits, 25 hurries) in his final eight games — a mark that only 10 4-3 defensive ends managed in 16 games.