2011 NFL Draft: Ranking the Top 20 Pass Rushers
By no coincidence, the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers met in Super Bowl XLV last month after finishing first and second in the NFL in sacks for the season.
Entering the 2011 NFL Draft season, teams hoping to get to where the Packers and Steelers are had better take heed: Pass rushers are golden in today's game.
Defense still wins championships in the NFL, but whereas it used to be the big interior linemen and hard-hitting safeties who shut down the running game and contained opposing offenses, the new world order in this league is constant and effective blitzing.
Putting the quarterback on edge even within the pocket can turn fast-paced offenses into frenzied, out-of-control offenses, and slow-paced offenses into roadkill.
With a nod, then, to the growing importance of pass rushers in today's game, here are the 20 best pass rushers available in next month's draft.
Some play inside on the defensive front, while others float between outside linebacker and defensive end.
All of them, though, share a nose for the quarterback and the freakish athleticism it takes to break up play after play in the backfield.
1. Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson
At 6'4'' and 280 pounds, Bowers can definitely stay at defensive end in the NFL, playing with his hand on the ground.
Yet he has the raw explosion off the ball of an outside linebacker. The combination was lethal for the 16 quarterbacks Bowers brought down last season. He will be a top-five pick, and well worth it.
2. Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn
Overall, Fairley is probably a better player than Bowers, but the big man on the inside is more balanced in his approach.
Fairley is a Ndamukong Suh prototype, with the ability to rack up sacks (11.5 of them last year) but has the raw athleticism to make plays in lateral pursuit in the ground game as well.
3. Von Miller, OLB, Texas A&M
Some thought it was a mistake for Miller not to declare for the Draft last spring. Not so.
Miller's speed and raw athleticism have continued to translate into huge forward progress, and he now looks like a top-five overall pick.
The only potential problem is size, as he weighs in under 240 pounds and will not be bull-rushing past NFL tackles anytime soon. Hopefully, his speed and instincts will help him overcome that concern.
4. Robert Quinn, DE, North Carolina
Although it raised character concerns and pushed him down many draft boards, the year-long suspension Quinn received last season may have been a blessing in disguise.
The long, slender end from North Carolina is likely in the best shape of his life and just got to go an entire football season without the same level of brutalization that frequently slows speed rushers of his build.
Quinn can stay on the line and should be a very good and balanced defender on the edge, in addition to his big-lay proclivity on the rush.
5. Marcell Dareus, DT, Alabama
Dareus is so strong he can play the nose in a 3-4 scheme while having the athleticism of a 4-3 end.
He is the full package, the guy into whose gap you simply cannot run and who will occasionally break down the line and ravage your quarterback.
Dareus' pass-rush skills are not even his primary weapons, yet he recorded 11 sacks over the past two years at Alabama.
6. Aldon Smith, DE, Missouri
Built a lot like Quinn, Smith is a similar pass rusher: He uses great explosion to get inside an offensive lineman's pads and hit the blocker before he himself gets hit.
Everyone is quick in the NFL, so Smith will have an adjustment period and occasionally could be blown off the football, but he has huge potential as an edge presence.
7. Cameron Jordan, DE, Cal
Jordan has the upper-body strength to occasionally brush off a would-be blocker, and he pairs it with the same athletic fluidity off the ball that Smith and Quinn show.
He doesn't have quite that level of burst, but he creates problems against any undersized or hesitant lineman.
8. Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue
There are better and bigger athletes available, but sometimes, there is no substitute for a pass rusher with an indomitable will. Meet Ryan Kerrigan.
His motor never stops, and although that counts for slightly less than it did in college, it means that Kerrigan will be playing at full speed late in a lot of games after his opponents lose half a step. That is when Kerrigan gets really lethal.
9. Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa
The barrage of highly athletic 6'4'' ends continues.
Clayborn is a bit of a head case and off-field run-ins have landed him in trouble before, but he has length, strength and a fair burst off the snap.
Clayborn is a 4-3 end only, but he provides value as a pass rusher in a smart scheme.
10. J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin
Watt towers over the aforementioned lengthy defensive ends.
He weighs in at 290 pounds, stands 6'6'' and has the easy strength to consistently clear routes to the passer.
He could be an end in any defense and even could play a 4-3 tackle from time to time. That kind of versatility and unpredictability helps him rush the passer so effectively.
11. Justin Houston, OLB, Georgia
More squat and stout than most of his fellow quarterback hunters, Houston uses his leverage to beat offensive protection schemes with both his power and his speed.
He recorded 17 sacks over his final two seasons with Georgia, and even if his speed is not good enough to stay at linebacker in the NFL, he will be a fine pass-rushing end and special assignment blitzer.
12. Cameron Heyward, DE, Ohio State
Maybe the closest thing in the draft to a traditional bull rusher, Heyward weighs in at nearly 300 pounds but plays the edge with terrific power and enough speed to get by.
Heyward is a more physical and potentially intimidating end than any other pass rusher available.
13. Muhammad Wilkerson, DT, Temple
Some teams just want gap-stoppers on the inside of their defensive front, but for those (the Patriots are one intriguing possibility) who want their nose tackles to get after the passer on third down, Wilkerson is a very viable option.
He weighs in around 320 pounds but gets his hat on would-be blockers almost simultaneous to the snap. His burst makes his tremendous raw power that much more dangerous.
14. Akeem Ayers, OLB, UCLA
Ayers is built for speed and plays well in coverage.
He might not rack up a ton of sacks in the NFL, because he will frequently be tasked with covering tough match-ups out of the backfield and at tight end.
When he wants to, though, Ayers has enough speed to get to the quarterback and change a play.
He has a nose for the football that serves him well and he flashed an ability to get lost among bigger linemen so that would-be blocking backs never got a hand on him.
15. Allen Bailey, DE, Miami (Fla.)
Bailey has a little power and a little burst, but his true ace in the hole (as demonstrated in the photo above) is an uncanny sense of when and how to run down a quarterback trying to escape the pocket.
He seemed to bait them at times as a senior, pretending to get trapped inside so an opposing passer would bolt for the edge, then running the opponent down and punishing him with a thick frame.
16. Robert Sands, DB, West Virginia
Lacking speed will prevent Sands from ever being a true NFL corner of much utility, but he could float around as a safety/prowler and create real havoc for opponents.
You cannot hide this guy, as he stands 6'5'' and weighs in around 220 pounds, and Sands' combination of good feet and strength could translate into a hard-hitting package with the potential for huge disruption in the backfield.
If this draft has a Brian Urlacher type, a player who has grown out of a position but could excel at a new one, Sands might be it.
17. Casey Matthews, ILB, Oregon
Casey is not Clay Matthews.
His quickness applies better laterally in filling gaps against the run and dropping into zone coverage.
When he does blitz up the gut, though, Casey shows flashes of his brother's relentlessness and upper-body strength that makes him a dangerous pass rusher in his own right.
18. Drake Nevis, DT/DE, LSU
Nevis played tackle for LSU and never filled out to scouts' liking.
He was able to blaze by or out-muscle undersized college linemen, but his future is probably as a 3-4 end rather than a defensive tackle.
Still, the instinctive moves he uses to disengage blockers and his pure strength have to entice would-be drafters. So do his 10 sacks in the past two seasons.
19. Sam Acho, DE, Texas
Twenty sacks in just over two seasons of actual playing time should get the attention of teams looking for mid-round help along the defensive front.
Acho is undersized if anything but has enough burst to play the end spot without giving up too much on the ground.
He could be a nightmare for quarterbacks with his long arms disrupting passing lanes and snagging escaping passers before they release from the pocket.
20. Chris Carter, OLB, Fresno St.
Carter began his collegiate career at linebacker, then slid to defensive end as a junior.
He cannot play with his hand down in the NFL at under 250 pounds, but he progressed from three to five to 11 sacks in the final three years of his Fresno State tenure and he definitely has the burst to be a 3-4 outside linebacker.