If quarterbacks are the most important people on offense, than it's safe to state that the guys responsible for hitting, sacking and damaging the opposing team's quarterbacks are the most important people on defense. That's why pass-rushers are so valuable, as focusing on one's passing attack continues to be the go-to trend in the National Football League.
You could make a valid argument that passing has never been better than it is right now, and fittingly, you could probably say the same thing about pass-rushing.
With that in mind, here are the 25 best pass-rushers in the NFL right now.
What's amazing about J.J. Watt is that he's so much more than a pass-rusher. In addition to leading the NFL with 20.5 sacks in 2012, Watt swatted away a ridiculous 16 passes, forced four fumbles and was an elite run defender.
That's why he was one vote shy of being the unanimous choice for last season's Defensive Player of the Year award. The 24-year-old had one of the most dominant defensive seasons in the history of the league, and he's only going to get better.
In his second season in the league, Von Miller pressured the quarterback 86 times. which was tied for the league lead with Cameron Wake, according to Pro Football Focus. Nobody at his position rushes the passer close to as well as he does, and he only turned 24 years old this past week.
Since entering the league in 2011, he's the only player in the NFL with 30-plus sacks and 100-plus tackles, per Pro Football Reference.
This goes to show how amazingly the 2011 draft class is shaking out.
Only Jared Allen has more sacks than Aldon Smith since Smith entered the league in 2011. He might not be a top-notch all-around defender (although he's a better run defender than he's given credit for), but the 23-year-old is already one of the most feared pass-rushers in professional football.
He had 70 total quarterback pressures in 2012, which was more than any other 3-4 outside linebacker in football, according to PFF.
A soon-to-be-31-year-old Jared Allen might be beginning to decline a little bit, but only seven players had more sacks than he did in 2012.
The league's second-leading active sack man wasn't able to close as well as in years past, but he actually had more total quarterback pressures this past season than he did in 2011, according to PFF. The only difference was that his sack total dropped from 22 to 12.
That was probably an anomaly, so expect Allen to get back into the teens and possibly even flirt with the 20-sack mark again in 2013.
Cameron Wake bounced back from a tough 2011 season to record a career-high 15 sacks in 2012 while also finishing tied with Von Miller for the league lead in quarterback pressures.
He was also rated by Pro Football Focus as the most productive pass-rushing defensive lineman in the NFL.
Sometimes it feels as though the 31-year-old former CFL MVP flies under the radar in Miami, but Wake fully deserved the first-team All-Pro Honors that he was decorated with last season.
Clay Matthews actually drew a higher PFF pass-rush rating than Aldon Smith in 2012, and he missed a quarter of the season due to injury but still managed to accumulate 13 sacks as one of the most versatile 3-4 outside linebackers in the NFL.
The 26-year-old could be in for a huge fifth season with the Packers. He just has to stay healthy.
DeMarcus Ware was one of several future Hall of Fame candidates that saw their sack totals drop off in 2012. The 30-year-old just wasn't as effective as we're used to seeing, finishing with just 11.5 sacks.
However, Ware was still rated by PFF as the fifth-best pass-rushing 3-4 outside linebacker in the game, thanks to a slew of pressures and five forced fumbles. The guy has had at least 11 sacks in seven straight seasons, and I can't imagine that there is a player in football who puts more fear into opposing offensive tackles than Ware.
The secret finally appears to be out on Geno Atkins, who has been an absolute monster for the last two years. The 2010 fourth-round pick had 12.5 sacks and a ridiculous 78 pressures from a 4-3 defensive tackle spot in 2012, which helped him earn first-team All-Pro honors.
Atkins can do so much more than rush the passer, but when he is in his top gear he is both an immovable object and an unstoppable force at the same time. It makes you wonder how the 25-year-old was passed on 119 times in the 2010 draft.
Charles Johnson continues to deliver while getting little recognition. One of the league's most underrated players had a career-high 12.5 sacks while forcing more fumbles than any front-seven defender in football in 2012.
His Pro Football Focus pass-rushing productivity rating ranked him just behind Cameron Wake atop the list of 4-3 defensive ends after the 26-year-old pressured the quarterback 75 times in his third-straight elite season.
Some thought Jason Pierre-Paul would make a run at Michael Strahan's single-season sack record in his third season, but instead, JPP's productivity dropped off a cliff. The 24-year-old still dominated some games, especially early on in the season, but he wasn't able to close at all. He finished with just 6.5 sacks, despite playing a full season.
Since he was barely a factor as a rookie before exploding with 16.5 sacks in 2011, we'll chalk this up as a delayed sophomore slump. Pierre-Paul is far too talented to be held to a single-digit sack total again in 2013.
Terrell Suggs had just two sacks in 2012 while sitting out half the season due to injury. Despite being less than 100 percent, he was a force in the playoffs and was a huge reason why the Ravens won the Super Bowl.
He was, of course, the Defensive Player of the Year the last time he was able to stay healthy for an entire season, racking up 14 sacks and a league-high seven forced fumbles in 2011.
It should be noted that Suggs is actually better than a lot of the players listed above him on this list. Pass-rushing isn't his entire game.
Tamba Hali is one of only five players with 30-plus sacks since the start of 2010. His 2012 season wasn't his best, but he was also stuck on the worst team in the NFL, so we're giving him a pass and still including him in the top-12.
The 29-year-old still had a very respectable 46 quarterback pressures in 2012, according to PFF, but he didn't make plays as often as we're used to.
Even as he approaches his mid-30s, Julius Peppers continues to be one of the most consistently dangerous pass-rushers in the NFL.
He doesn't register sacks like he did in his prime with Carolina, but the eight-time Pro Bowler can still turn it on and dominate in big moments.
Mario Williams got off to a slow start after signing a high-priced deal to join the Buffalo Bills last offseason. He loses points for failing to revive that defense, but he gains some credibility for still managing to record 10.5 sacks with limited support.
The 28-year-old missed most of the 2011 season in Houston but he hasn't had more than 12 sacks since 2007. That is hard to believe considering how much of a game-changer the former top pick can be, and it is further proof that it is not always about that sack total.
Still, from Week 6 onward in 2012, he was top-10 sack artist. He'll have to build upon that performance in 2013 in order to live up to his contract.
Brian Orakpo missed virtually the entire 2012 season due to a torn pectoral muscle, which is a shame because it appeared that he was on track to have a breakout year. In terms of overall pressure in 2011, he joined a class with guys like Clay Matthews, Aldon Smith and Tamba Hali, but wasn't able to build upon that in his fourth season.
He had between 8.5 and 11 sacks in each of his first three seasons and was constantly in the opponent's backfield, so expect the 26-year-old to explode if he can stay healthy in 2013.
Brandon Graham might have just 8.5 sacks in 12 career starts, but that's enough to get the 2010 first-round pick some love on this list. That's because he not only avoided the bust label in 2012, but he broke out with a few dominant performances in the second half of the season.
Among defensive linemen who took at least 25 percent of their team's snaps, PFF concluded that Graham was the most productive pass-rushers in the NFL in 2012. Only Cameron Wake received a higher rating at the 4-3 defensive end position and he had more pressures per snap than anybody in the game.
Look out for a huge 2013 season for the Michigan product.
Carlos Dunlap has just 20 sacks in three seasons in the NFL, but he brings pressure as often as almost anybody in the league. PFF has ranked him among the top-10 4-3 defensive ends in each of the last two seasons, and he was the most productive pass-rusher in the league through the month of November in 2011.
After dealing with injuries early in 2012, the 24-year-old had four sacks in the final five games, so he could be on track for a big fourth year in 2013.
Rather quietly, Chris Long has made quite a nice career for himself in St. Louis. The former No. 2 overall pick has 24.5 sacks in the last two seasons, and PFF has rated him as the third most productive pass-rusher in the league in back-to-back seasons.
With limited support, the 28-year-old has been extremely consistent. In fact, in 2011, he had more quarterback pressures than anyone in football.
Elvis Dumervil has had at least 9.5 sacks in each of the last three seasons and averaged over 10 sacks per season during his six-year career in Denver. The 29-year-old has also forced 10 fumbles in the last three years, and he was one of only seven 4-3 defensive ends to notch 60 or more total pressures in 2012, according to PFF.
He doesn't get a ton of attention because of Von Miller, and he's likely to be overshadowed by Terrell Suggs in Baltimore, but Dumervil remains one of the most consistent edge rushers in the league.
Talk about consistent. Chris Clemons has recorded either 11 or 11.5 sacks in three-straight seasons, and he has forced three fumbles in each of the last two years.
The former journeyman isn't just a closer. He's had at least 59 quarterback pressures in three-straight seasons, ranking in the top-eight among 4-3 defensive ends on all three occasions, according to PFF.
This isn't just about Anthony Spencer's career year in 2012. The guy has had a bum rap for years because he was never a great closer, but he's been bringing pressure consistently throughout his career.
Spencer was rated by PFF this year as the fifth most productive pass-rusher among 3-4 outside linebackers, but only seven players at that position had more hurries than he did in 2011, and he's ranked within the top-10 in that category four years in a row.
He finally started registering more takedowns this past season, hitting the double-digits in sacks while dominating in run defense.
Dwight Freeney isn't the player that he used to be, but an injury-plagued season and a forced adjustment to a 3-4 defense certainly didn't help his cause in 2012. Still, Freeney ended up bringing more pressure than all but six 3-4 outside linebackers in football.
The 33-year-old hasn't had more than 10 sacks in a season since 2009, but he finished the 2012 regular season with sacks in three consecutive games and can still bring serious heat when healthy.
One bad year isn't enough for us to completely forget about Trent Cole, but another season like that and he'll disappear from this list. The usually super-consistent 30-year-old had a career-low three sacks in 2012.
That said, he still drew a top-20 PFF pass-rushing rating among 4-3 defensive ends thanks to a solid 46 pressures.
Cole had at least eight sacks in six-straight seasons between 2006 and 2011. Regardless of the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately philosophy, that résumé gets him through.
Former third-round pick Justin Houston had five sacks in five games to start his sophomore season with the Kansas City Chiefs, including a three-sack performance against the Saints at the Superdome.
He hasn't been overly consistent outside of that stretch, but he still finished 2012 with 10.5 quarterback takedowns and was rated by PFF as the sixth-most productive pass-rusher at the 3-4 outside linebacker position.
That is not bad for a 24-year-old who was passed on 69 times in the 2011 draft.
Michael Bennett might only have 15 career sacks, but nine of them came in the 2012 season. He was also one of only 10 NFL defenders to be part of the 70-pressure club, based on numbers from Pro Football Focus.
I'll admit that I'm projecting a bit here based on the lack of a sample size from Bennett's career thus far, but the 27-year-old could be on the verge of a big first season in Seattle.
Here are some of the guys who just missed the list...
- LaMarr Woodley of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who just can't stay healthy.
- James Harrison, a free agent, whose best days are behind him.
- Osi Umenyiora of the Atlanta Falcons, who desperately needs to bounce back in Atlanta.
- John Abraham, a free agent, whose career might be about to hit a wall.
- Bruce Irvin (Seattle Seahawks), Daryl Washington (Arizona Cardinals) and Ryan Kerrigan (Washington Redskins), who aren't quite there yet.
- Also, Paul Kruger, who has to prove it without Terrell Suggs, and Michael Johnson, who might be benefiting from that line in Cincinnati. Greg Hardy also had a great year in Carolina but he'll need to follow that up in 2013.
- Henry Melton, Jabaal Sheard, Robert Quinn, Robert Mathis, Michael Johnson and Ndamukong Suh were also considered.
I'm sure ya'll will let me know if I missed anybody.