Specialized players are becoming more and more scarce in today's NFL. The modern NFL athlete is required to come off the college production line complete with multiple skill sets, and pro teams will no longer accommodate players who can only do one thing.
Nowhere is this more evident than on defense.
Gone are the days of strict run-stoppers like Matt Millen or specialist coverage 'backers like Monte Coleman. Ends are required to drop into coverage more often, as well as slide inside to play tackle in some nickel fronts. Linebackers are required to have the ability to play every down.
There is still room though for those players who are pure pass-rushers. You wouldn't trust them to hold up against the run or peel off and run with a receiver coming out of the backfield, but no pass defense is complete without those players who excel at getting to the quarterback on third down.
Teams like the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys are comfortable leaving the job to superstars like Clay Matthews and DeMarcus Ware. But there are still teams who prefer to turn the responsibility over to those players for whom rushing the passer is a natural gift. They won't register double digits in terms of starts, but these pressure specialists are essential to their team's third-down defense.
Here is a list of the top five pass-rushers who manage to make the most of limited playing time.
Trevor Pryce is a specialist pass-rusher who creates most of his havoc inside. No longer an every down player, Pryce still retains the ability to get to the quarterback—a player with his pedigree, pressuring the passer will always have value.
New York Jets coach Rex Ryan quickly pounced when Pryce hit the waiver wire in late September. Versatile enough to play end or tackle, Pryce is a crucial component in the stunts and line twists many teams rely on to provide pressure on third downs. His 6'5", 290-pound frame makes him capable of penetrating the line of scrimmage from both three and four-man nickel-and-dime fronts.
At age 35, Pryce is certainly in the twilight of his career. But Trace Armstrong was still chasing down quarterbacks at 38. Pryce's speed may be gone, but his natural pass-rushing instincts remain intact.
It is those pass-rushing abilities that helped the Jets depart from their familiar heavy blitzing to the blanket coverage schemes that confounded Tom Brady in the playoffs. With fellow lineman Shaun Ellis possibly leaving New York, Ryan and the Jets could still find use for a player with Pryce's pass-rushing talent.
It is the pass-rushing skills of Travis LaBoy that have sustained a seven-year career in the NFL.
The Bay Area native is ostensibly listed as a linebacker, but he has always been at his most productive when rushing from a three-point stance.
Although his season was curtailed by a knee injury in late December, LaBoy made an impact on the Niners' defense. He registered five sacks and was an effective complement to defensive tackle Justin Smith in nickel packages.
The former Arizona Cardinal's time as a linebacker means he also has valuable experience rushing from a standing position. This versatility makes LaBoy useful in the growing number of "amoeba"-style nickel sub-packages proliferating today's NFL.
LaBoy has never managed to develop a repertoire of skills complete enough to be an every-down end or linebacker. But his penchant for creating pressure off the edge is an invaluable weapon for a San Francisco defense lacking a true stand-out pass-rusher.
Signed off the New York Giants' practice squad in 2008, Wallace Gilberry is developing a niche as a productive pressure specialist for Chiefs defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel to unleash on opposing passers.
Despite being undersized, Gilberry flourishes as a tackle in nickel-and-dime packages. He uses a quick takeoff and good leverage to speed past larger blockers. He also forms a dangerous partnership on third downs with Chiefs' sack master, Tamba Hali.
Crennel has taken advantage of Gilberry's versatility to rush him from the end position in certain sub-packages. Often using his speed to take an inside move and crash down inside, Gilberry will use a swim technique to go around guards who attempt to drive block and pancake him.
Gilberry's skill as a pass-rusher eventually produced seven sacks, making him a surprising contributor to the Chiefs' improved defensive showing in 2010. The highlight of his season was a three-sack performance against the St. Louis Rams in Week 15.
The possibility of combining Gilberry's quick interior pressure with Tamba Hali and third-round draft choice Justin Houston rushing from the outside should make the Chiefs' third-down defense a pass protector's nightmare.
He may have already worn three different team uniforms, but Antwan Barnes is as capable a pass-rusher as any in the league.
A classic third-down weapon, Barnes is at his most effective when coming around the corner at speed to attack a quarterback's blindside. The former Florida International star is able to call on a potent blend of speed and power to deliver a devastating bull-rush capable of collapsing the edges of any blocking scheme.
Barnes has never quite displayed the discipline for pass coverage, nor the inclination for run support. But his ability to wreak havoc on the outside of any pass protection scheme is reminiscent of former New England Patriot Chris Slade.
After surprisingly failing to find a home in the Philadelphia Eagles' blitzing system, Barnes was quickly seized by the San Diego Chargers. Ron Rivera was able to harness his ability to generate pressure from either side of the line into a disruptive force for the league's leading pass-rush.
A limited repertoire of pass rush moves is the only thing that prevents Barnes from being higher on the list. But new San Diego defensive coordinator Greg Manusky still shouldn't overlook Barnes as a player who can provide a huge impact for the Chargers' pass defense.
If he can finally settle, Barnes could produce big numbers as a third-down specialist.
A reduced role out in the Pacific Northwest offered a new lease on life to veteran Raheem Brock.
Released by the Indianapolis Colts prior to the 2010 season, Brock briefly spent time at division rival Tennessee. After he was cut loose by the Titans in late August, Brock arrived in Seattle and made a big difference in the Seahawks' defense.
Seattle head coach Pete Carroll reduced Brock's role to third-down pass-rusher, and the former Temple product surprised everyone by enjoying the finest season of his career. Brock recorded nine sacks, defensed three passes and forced and recovered a fumble; a healthy return from a player with a limited number of snaps.
In obvious passing situations, the Seahawks will move out of their hybrid base and bring in Brock to replace their five technique. Brock teams well with elephant rusher Chris Clemons to make life extremely difficult for opposing quarterbacks.
Toward the end of the Seahawks' NFC West-winning campaign, Brock managed to emerge as the most potent pass-rushing threat on the Seattle defense. In the Seahawks' biggest games of the season, Brock was a difference-maker. He helped clinch the division with a 2.5-sack effort against the St. Louis Rams and also proved to be a nightmare for Drew Brees in Seattle's Wild Card upset of the New Orleans Saints.
If Brock hits free agency, potential suitors should be intrigued by what he could offer as a rotational pass-rusher. Brock still possesses an explosive first step and has developed a myriad of pass-rush combinations from his days working under defensive line guru John Teerlinck in Indianapolis.
A late career reinvention could prove as beneficial to Brock as one did for former Dallas Cowboys great Jim Jeffcoat, who also excelled once his playing time was reduced.
These players may not generate the hype of the league's every-down stars, but their ability to pressure the passer when it matters most makes them invaluable members of any roster.