25 NFL Pass-Rushers Who Will Give QBs Nightmares in 2011
The horror movie industry has evolved.
Once upon a time, the most terrifying thing you could put on film was either a 300-foot tall mutant lizard, or an army of suburbanized "aliens" wearing shiny onesies and hair like news anchors. Today? The hallmark of a truly scary movie is an innocent-looking little kid who is under a curse or being haunted by ghosts, and deadpans ominous phrases like, "I think they're here."
Pro football is still behind the curve.
Here we are, almost 90 years since the NFL's inception, and the scariest thing on the field is still a big, fast defensive player with harmful intentions. The only things that have changed over the decades are that his pads are now made of plastic and he's wearing a cage over his face—and he makes millions of dollars to bring his old-fashioned style of terror.
With the league becoming increasingly pass-heavy, the four most important jobs are quarterback, cover cornerback, offensive tackle protecting the QB's blind side, and pass-rusher.
It's the last group that allows the most flexibility. Whether it's a 265-pound defensive end, a 330-pound nose tackle, a 250-pound linebacker, or 200-pound safety, players who can get into the backfield, disrupt timing and bring down the quarterback are valued by every team no matter what system they run. And whether the players prefer to sack-and-strip, take out the knees, smother with all of their weight, or channel Lawrence Taylor and make "snot bubbles" pop out of a QB's nose, the bottom line is that they are the most dangerous men in the game.
Here are 25 pass-rushing monsters who will keep quarterbacks awake at night next season:
25. Troy Polamalu, Roman Harper and Adrian Wilson (tie)
The modern masters of the safety blitz.
Wilson ranks fifth all-time in sacks among defensive backs (22.5), Harper added three sacks last season to his career total (9.5) while forcing six fumbles, and Polamalu (8.0 career sacks) is the reigning AP Defensive Player of the Year whose No. 43 is on the radar of every opposing QB for every single snap that Pittsburgh's defense is on the field.
So what about Brian Dawkins? Although "Weapon X" is the NFL's all-time leader in forced fumbles among DBs and fourth in sacks, he is 37 years old and on the downside of his Hall of Fame career. Harper might look like the great-uncle of this group, but he's only 28 years old.
24. Terrell Suggs, LB, Ravens
Part-time screen writer and movie producer, full-time problem for every quarterback on Baltimore's schedule.
Suggs' production company debuted a flick at this year's Cannes Film Festival called When Beautiful People Do Ugly Things. Your opinion of Suggs' appearance is up to you, but he doesn't need to shoot footage of himself doing ugly things when NFL Films has such an extensive library.
Just when it seemed like the 28-year-old might need a change of scenery last season, he recaptured his All-Pro form, making 11 sacks in the regular season and five more in the playoffs.
23. Carlos Dunlap, DE, Bengals
Not only did Dunlap sit out four games during his rookie season, but he also didn't start any of the games in which he did appear. And yet the former Florida Gator still flirted with double-digit sacks, registering 9.5 for the Bengals as a full-time backup.
There's no reason Dunlap shouldn't win a starting job next season. If Cincinnati can then re-sign free agent CB Johnathan Joseph, or snatch up another available shut-down corner to pair with Leon Hall, Dunlap will crack double digits easily.
22. Robert Mathis, DE, Colts
Mathis is the Chris Bosh of the NFL. People don't give him enough credit because he plays with superstar teammates—sharing a D-line with Dwight Freeney and a locker room with Peyton Manning, among others—but his numbers are too good to keep him off the annual list of all-stars.
The biggest difference between Mathis and Bosh? Nobody would ever fix their face to accuse Mathis of being soft.
Last season, Mathis made the Pro Bowl for a third straight time, his 11.0 sacks marking the fourth occasion in an eight-year career that he's reached double digits. His 74.0 career sacks place Mathis second to Freeney in the Colts' franchise record book.
21. Chris Long, DE, Rams
His third pro season was the first in which Long (8.5 sacks, 21 QB hits, three forced fumbles) performed like the fire-starter St. Louis wanted when they picked him No. 2 overall in the '08 NFL Draft.
With 2011 first-round pick DE Robert Quinn expected to provide a pass-rushing threat on the other side of the line while dividing the attention of blockers (along with veteran James Hall), Long could make his first Pro Bowl next season.
20. Charles Johnson, DE, Panthers
Cleveland and Atlanta were said to be two of the teams most interested in signing Johnson, who made 11.5 sacks in his breakout season with the Panthers—his first as a starter—and was universally thought to be in line for a big raise this summer.
The 25-year-old, 275-pounder isn't going anywhere, though. He is more important to Carolina's rebuilding effort than any player outside of QB Cam Newton, which the Panthers proved by locking Johnson into a six-year, $72 million contract this week.
19. Shaun Phillips, LB, Chargers
Phillips (56.5 sacks) has quietly moved up the ranks to No. 3 on San Diego's career sacks list, surpassing the likes of Shawne Merriman and Junior Seau, and he's one good season from vaulting Lee Williams for second place.
And at 30 years old, Phillips has at least a couple of good seasons left in the tank to wrangle opposing QBs. He hasn't missed a start since '07, and last season's sack total of 11.5 was just a half-sack shy of his career high.
18. Da'Quan Bowers and Von Miller (tie)
Even though NFL rookies across the board face an uphill climb after the lockout cost them valuable time they could have spent with their respective coaches and at team facilities, I think at least one first-year defensive demon—Tampa Bay DE Da'Quan Bowers or Denver LB Von Miller—will have a monster debut campaign.
Miller (10.5 sacks at Texas A&M) was drafted No. 2 overall to bolster Denver's porous defense, while Bowers was in the discussion as a potential No. 1 pick before concerns about a knee injury dropped him all the way to the second round.
The Buccaneers may have gotten the steal of 2011 thanks to that knee, however. Bowers led the country in sacks (15.5) last season at Clemson, and with reports indicating he's ready to go full-speed when training camp opens, he should play his way into a starting job by Opening Day.
17. Trent Cole, DE, Eagles
NFL tight ends and tackles aren't typically known for their speed and grace, but Cole has a way of making those trying to block him look especially slow and silly.
The two-time Pro Bowler has seen superstar teammates come (Michael Vick, Asante Samuel) and go (Donovan McNabb, Brian Dawkins), and all the while Cole has been one of the rocks keeping the Eagles competitive throughout those transitional periods.
Cole has registered double-digit sacks in three of the past four seasons, and the one time he didn't hit the mark, he fell only one sack short.
16. Justin Tuck, DE, Giants
The main reason Osi Umenyiora could be considered expendable by the Giants, Tuck made 11.5 sacks from his D-end spot and forced six fumbles last season while earning his second career All-Pro and Pro Bowl nods.
You want QB nightmares? Tuck was a major part of a New York defense that knocked opposing quarterbacks out of the game five times last season.
15. Elvis Dumervil, DE/LB, Broncos
This is why football scouts and analysts shouldn't put so much stock in measurements.
You can't watch a Broncos game without hearing an announcer bring up Dumervil's shorter-than-ideal height for his position (5'11"), but when has it ever made the six-year pro any less of a beast? For starters, 5'11" is nothing but a jelly sandwich away from 6'1", and the QBs who have to feel Dumervil's helmet in their armpit a couple of times per game aren't thinking about his height. They're just thinking about keeping him away from them.
Dumervil registered 17 sacks in 2009 before missing all of last season with a torn pectoral muscle.
14. LaMarr Woodley, LB, Steelers
Another prodigious talent who has been overshadowed by some louder (James Harrison), more marketable (Hines Ward), more popular (Ben Roethlisberger) and more talented (Troy Polamalu) teammates, Woodley has registered double-digit sacks in each of his three seasons as a starter.
Quote-seeking reporters, reality TV show producers, and companies with products to pitch might ignore Woodley, but opposing QBs definitely don't forget about him.
13. Cameron Wake, LB, Dolphins
Undrafted out of Penn State in 2005, Wake served a bid in the Canadian Football League before taking his talents to South Beach and turning himself into one of the NFL's premier pass-rushers.
Wake's 14.0 sacks last season ranked third in the league and earned him a spot on both the Pro Bowl and All-Pro rosters. Coming off the edge from his outside linebacker position, Wake is a swarming mass of arms and shoulder pads who is harder to avoid than an angry flock of bats.
12. Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants
The increasing likelihood that Umenyiora will hold out of training camp until the Giants either give him a raise or trade him is good news for the teams interested in acquiring Osi, as well as New York's quarterbacks. (Not that they can actually get hit in practice, but they can get harassed.)
Umenyiora's 10 forced fumbles last season set a new NFL record, icing on top of his 11.5 sacks. He is turning 30 this year and coming off hip surgery, so he's potentially in decline, but odds are Osi can still produce at a high level and disrupt plenty of offenses.
11. John Abraham, DE, Falcons
The jigsaw of this list of horror-movie villains, Abraham is proof that brute strength and young legs aren't the only ways to scare a QB—veteran savvy is also part of the equation.
Abraham was supposed to be old and over the hill going into last season, but then he made 13 sacks and earned his first Pro Bowl berth since 2004. At 33 years old, Abraham's name is staying near the top of the league's pass-rushing hierarchy until further notice.
10. Brian Orakpo, LB, Redskins
Given the unpredictable probability that kick returner Brandon Banks will take one to the house, Orakpo is kind of the only reason you'd bother making an appointment to watch the Redskins next season.
He's also the only reason quarterbacks don't immediately smile when they see Washington on the schedule.
In two years, Orakpo has played in two different defensive systems, and he's shined no matter what surrounds him. Settled in now as an outside linebacker in Washington's 3-4, he has registered 19.5 sacks in two years and looks like a consistent double-digit sack producer for the better part of the next decade.
9. James Harrison, LB, Steelers
At this point, Harrison's mouth has replaced his ability as a unique selling point. But he's still a force to be reckoned with, even if you gave him a gag order and stuck a Terrible Towel between his teeth.
Last season was the third in a row in which Harrison posted at least 10 sacks and five forced fumbles, and it seems the only thing standing in the way of a four-peat is if NFL commissioner Roger Goodell enacts an O.J.-in-Vegas vendetta against him and starts suspending Harrison for everything.
8. Mario Williams, LB, Texans
The good news for quarterbacks league-wide? Mario Williams is switching from defensive end to outside linebacker next season, and is therefore trying to lose about 20 pounds. So the 280-pound tornado that has been slamming into them for five years (48.0 sacks) may only weigh 260 pounds now.
The bad news for quarterbacks? Mario Williams is switching from defensive end to outside linebacker next season, and is therefore trying to lose about 20 pounds. So he could be faster, less encumbered by starting from a two-point stance, and will have a slightly bigger head start to pick up steam.
Good luck with that.
7. Tamba Hali, LB, Chiefs
As if the black visor and the fact that he's not afraid to rock Venus Williams beads on the braids under his helmet weren't intimidating enough, Hali is even more menacing because he's really good.
Hali has flourished since moving from defensive end to outside linebacker two years ago, culminating in his 14.5-sack effort last season (second in the NFL) that earned him a Pro Bowl selection. The 6'3", 275-pounder doesn't "tackle" ball-carriers as much as he pounces on and attacks them—quarterbacks included.
Bonus points if those QBs actually get a glance at the visor; maybe they'll get a close-up view of their own reaction just before becoming another of Hali's victims.
6. Clay Matthews, LB, Packers
Imagine if Alvin Mack from The Program looked like Steve Lattimer.
Another football terrorist whose appearance is part of the intimidation package, Matthews has the whole lion's mane thing going with his hair—or maybe it's supposed to be Thor in a Packers uniform.
The most disruptive force on the reigning Super Bowl champions' defense, Matthews compiled 13.5 sacks in the 2010 regular season and another 3.5 in the playoffs.
5. Dwight Freeney, DE, Colts
If Robert Mathis is the Chris Bosh of the NFL, teammate Dwight Freeney is the league's Tim Duncan. He's not the biggest, strongest, fastest or nastiest pass-rusher in the game, but he's smarter and more skilled than anybody else.
Freeney's signature spin move is as aesthetically textbook and reliable as Duncan's bank shot, and he always seems to be in the right place to make the right play.
With 94 career sacks, Freeney is fourth among active players, and he has more left in the tank than any of the three in front of him: Jason Taylor, John Abraham and Joey Porter. If he plays at his current level for 2-3 more years, Freeney will be knocking on the all-time top 10.
4. Ndamukong Suh, DT, Lions
Detroit hasn't seen anything this frightening since Ron Artest was hit with a cup of beer.
Suh's rookie season saw him make 10.0 sacks from the defensive tackle position, and he should only be tougher to stop with the Lions' addition of 2011 first-round draft pick DT Nick Fairley. Suh already manhandles multiple 300-pound offensive linemen per snap on his way to the QB, so imagine if opponents have to devote those extra blockers to Fairley and DE Kyle Vanden Bosch? It'll be like trying to block a charging bull with a red cape.
3. Jared Allen, DE, Vikings
After averaging about 15 sacks in each of the previous three seasons, 2010 was a down year for Allen, who "only" made 11 sacks on a struggling Minnesota squad. He could be in for another tough assignment, as the Vikings are probably losing starting DE Ray Edwards in free agency.
Last season Allen was limited to just one sack in his first seven games—with every opponent's blocking scheme designed to stop him—then went on a tear of 10 sacks in the final nine games.
Allen is constantly touted for his "motor," but he doesn't get enough credit for his technique in shedding blockers and infiltrating the backfield. You don't get 83 sacks in the NFL just by having a lot of energy.
2. Julius Peppers, DE, Bears
After signing an $84 million contract, Peppers' first season in Chicago was a bit of a letdown: He finished with 8.0 sacks, below the double-digit standard he'd reached in six of his eight years playing for the Carolina Panthers.
On the other hand, Peppers' contributions helped Chicago's defense rank fourth in the NFL in points allowed (17.9 PPG) and carry the team to the NFC Championship Game. So it'd be easy to argue that the Bears are getting their money's worth.
You would think Peppers would be a big target for blockers at 6'7", 283 pounds, but he's so athletic and quick that sometimes he beats his man with a move before they've even touched each other.
1. DeMarcus Ware, LB, Cowboys
How does the best pass-rusher in the NFL—arguably the best defensive player in the business—ply his trade for the Dallas Cowboys of all teams, and still have something of a low public profile? It just goes to show how much defensive players are undervalued by casual fans and media.
That said, not one running back, offensive lineman, coach or quarterback in the leagues would dare undervalue DeMarcus Ware.
For them, the upside of playing against the Cowboys is that they have a good chance of ending up on national TV. The downside is that Ware will probably put them on their back on national TV.
The five-time Pro Bowl and five-time All-Pro linebacker led the NFL in sacks last season (15.5), two years removed from making 20 sacks during the '08 season. Only once in Ware's career has he failed to record at least 11 sacks in a season, and that was his rookie year.