Who Will Be the NFL's Next Truly Dominant Pass-Rusher?
It pays to be good at rushing the passer in today's NFL.
Von Miller of the Denver Broncos is arguably the best player in the NFL at doing so standing up. He's the NFL's preeminent outside linebacker. And as ESPN reported last week, Miller parlayed that status into a six-year, $114.5 million contract that makes him the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history.
When it comes to getting after it with your hand in the dirt, there's no question it's J.J. Watt's world, and every other defensive lineman is just living in it. The Houston Texans defensive end is well-paid to do what he does, to the tune of over $16 million a season.
It's simple. Teams lucky enough to have a Watt or Miller will do just about anything to keep them. Teams without will do just about anything to get one.
Just ask Olivier Vernon's agent—if you can get him to stop laughing, that is.
Teams are always in search of a dominant defensive force. But some teams already have such a gem on the roster. A player who is about to leap into the ranks of the names spoken in hushed whispers at QB support group meetings.
Before we see who those players are, a few quick notes about this list.
No players past their third professional season were included. Nor were players who already have multiple double-digit-sack seasons on their resume. You can't break out if you've already broken out.
Now, ranked in terms of their "Wattage" (the ability to shock opponents and electrify fans up to 100 Watts, or a "JJ"—clever, huh?), here's a look at the next generation of elite pass-rushers in the NFL.
Just Missed the Cut
There's no shortage of young pass-rushers taken in the early rounds kicking around the NFL—players who teams hope with baited breath will blossom into the defensive forces they were drafted to be.
It's possible that any of the players listed here could do so this year. But there's also at least one reason to think such a breakout is unlikely in 2016.
Bud Dupree, OLB, Pittsburgh Steelers (5 Watts)
Dupree was Pittsburgh's first-round pick in 2015, part of the seemingly never-ending (and to date fruitless) quest to replace James Harrison, who is still playing at 67 years old (approximately). Dupree did rack up four sacks in limited duty last year, but he graded out dead last in the league among 3-4 linebackers, per Pro Football Focus, and is no sure bet to beat out Arthur Moats to start in 2016.
Stephon Tuitt, DE, Pittsburgh Steelers (5 Watts)
Tuitt already had a mini-breakout of sorts, piling up 54 tackles and 6.5 sacks in 2015. His ranking here should in no way be viewed as an indictment of him as a player. Tuitt slotted a respectable 16th among 3-4 defensive ends at PFF in 2015. And he has the makings of a good edge-setter with some aptitude for getting after the passer. But the former Notre Dame star isn't the sort of player ever likely to be a dominant pass-rushing force.
Vic Beasley, DE, Atlanta Falcons (10 Watts)
Beasley showed some flashes of the ability to be head coach Dan Quinn's "Leo" end in tallying four sacks as a rookie in 2015. Year 2 dawns with Beasley looking at a "dual" role as an early-down linebacker who kicks to end in passing situations. The former Clemson star may well be talented enough to pull it off, but an even steeper learning curve than most pass-rushers face could delay his coming-out party until 2017.
Demarcus Lawrence, DE, Dallas Cowboys (10 Watts)
With 55 tackles and eight sacks last year in 16 games (13 starts), Lawrence has shown considerable pass-rush potential. So much so, in fact, that the former Boise State star was being counted on to anchor the Cowboys in that regard this season. But whether it's a broken foot in 2014 or a four-game suspension to open this year, Lawrence has also demonstrated that he can't yet be counted on to even be on the field week in and week out. In Dallas, this is known as the "Sean Lee Effect."
Joey Bosa, DE, San Diego Chargers
Just as in 2015, the first two picks in last April's draft were quarterbacks. Then the team at No. 3 made the first eye-opening pick of the night with a pass-rusher few expected.
Last year, it was Florida's Dante Fowler to Jacksonville (more on him in a bit) with Leonard Williams still on the board. This year, it was the San Diego Chargers (a 3-4 team) taking Ohio State's Joey Bosa, who most pundits projected as a 4-3 end.
However, as general manager Tom Telesco told reporters after the draft, per Ricky Henne of the team's website, the Chargers view Bosa as a player who can wreak havoc from anywhere on the line:
Just watch him play in college. Talk about his strength, power, leverage, his hand use, his technique. The way he played the run in college is some of the best run defense we saw this year. ... Joey plays big. He's 6-5, 275-280. He's 20 years old. He's going to put some more weight on, but the weight doesn't bother us at all. The way he plays the run. He’s stout, strong and powerful. Has great hands and a great feel for it. ...
... He's an outstanding pass rusher, on the edge and moving him inside to rush, but in addition to that, he plays the run extremely well. So for us, he's very balanced. To find a player to help us in both areas, which we think we need, he's not just strictly a pass rusher. He plays the run game extremely well.
Yes, Bosa's 2015 production paled when compared to the year before, when he was Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. But the stats only told half the story. Even in the face of constant double-teams Bosa was still regularly in the backfield.
There isn't a trait teams want in a defensive end that Bosa doesn't have. There isn't a thing NFL teams look for in an edge-rusher that Bosa can't do. He's as adept at getting around blockers as he is going through them.
There's a lot to like about the youngster, but he faces an uphill climb. Bosa remains unsigned as he and the Bolts work on the fine print of his rookie deal, and once he does get in camp, he faces a steep learning curve.
It's been half a decade since Miller became the last rookie to top 10 sacks in a season, and a full one since Shawne Merriman did so for the Chargers.
Bosa's the real deal, and he's going to be a good one. But it will take time.
Even Watt wasn't Watt until his sophomore campaign.
Superstar Potential: 15 Watts
Dee Ford, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs
Over his first two NFL seasons, Dee Ford hasn't done a whole lot on the stat sheet. Thirty-one tackles and 5.5 sacks isn't necessarily the production the Chiefs were looking for when they drafted Ford in the first round in 2014.
However, the Chiefs are going to find out exactly what they have in Ford this year whether they want to or not.
Thanks to surgery in February to repair his ACL, no one is sure when the Chiefs might get superstar pass-rusher Justin Houston back. That absence looms large over the Chiefs' efforts to return to the playoffs, and it leaves Ford with some huge shoes to fill.
After playing sparingly as a rookie, Ford's snaps increased down the stretch last year. So did his output, with all four of his sacks in 2015 coming in December.
That hot finish gives head coach Andy Reid confidence that Ford is up to the challenge he faces in 2016. He was quoted in May as saying, per ESPN.com's Adam Teicher:
The one thing we came out of this past season with is that Dee Ford is a pretty good football player. He's a first-round pick. Fifty percent of them end up playing and 50 percent of them don't and most of them take a year or two to get going. So you've seen the improvement every year. I'm expecting it to take another jump forward. The one thing we know is he has that potential.
The Chiefs also brought back veteran Tamba Hali, however, which would seem to indicate at least some reservation as to whether Ford is ready to step into a role as a full-time starter. Hali, for his part, isn't buying that. As he told Joel Thorman of SB Nation, in his opinion, the only thing that can hold Ford back is Ford:
At this stage, if I had to speak for him, I would like for him to take the next step in being a professional and basically (the reason) why they drafted him here is to take over the role. The season's too long for me to focus on being a starter or a backup. I mean, we all have to contribute.
But I think he's in the position where he can kind of take the torch and go forward. That's really mental, physically, the kid is gifted and he has it, but mentally we have to just make sure that he understands why we're in this building and what needs to be done while we're here.
On many levels Ford was dropped into an untenable spot as a rookie. A victim of unreasonable expectations caused by playing behind a pair of Pro Bowlers in Hali and Houston.
Still, in just under 500 snaps last year, Ford received PFF's third-lowest grade among 3-4 outside linebackers.
Ford's being given a golden opportunity to improve on that number this year. And if the Chiefs are going to make it back to the postseason and Ford's going to stay on the field, he'd better.
Superstar Potential: 15 Watts
Dante Fowler, DE, Jacksonville Jaguars
The 2015 class didn't exactly take the NFL by storm from a pass-rushing perspective.
That may have had something to do with the fact that the first sackmaster drafted a year ago didn't play a down after tearing his ACL in the first hour of the first day of rookie camp.
Such was the ignominious fate of Dante Fowler, who was the latest victim of the spate of horrific luck that has plagued first-round picks of the Jacksonville Jaguars in recent years.
If there was a silver lining to the injury, it was its timing. Fowler has had an entire calendar year for the knee to heal, and per John Oehser of the team's website, Fowler was a full participant in offseason workouts.
The flip side to that, as Oehser wrote, is that with every healthy workout the pressure grows a bit on Fowler to produce like a top-five pick in 2016:
Make no mistake: the Jaguars do need Fowler, the No. 3 overall election in the 2015 NFL Draft – to provide pressure on opposing quarterbacks. He doesn't necessarily have to produce double-digit sacks, but he must disrupt the opposing quarterback. The Jaguars got good news on this front when Fowler, after missing his rookie season with a torn ACL, agile, quick and healthy throughout offseason, non-contact workouts.
On paper, at least, the pieces are in place. The Jaguars spent big to add Denver Broncos defensive end Malik Jackson in free agency, who will help take pressure off Fowler. So will the healthy return of tackle Sen'Derrick Marks.
And as Dane Brugler of CBS Sports wrote in comparing Fowler to Terrell Suggs last year, his range and quickness would appear a perfect fit for the Leo pass-rusher role in Gus Bradley's defense.
"Fowler's light feet and fluid athleticism belie his powerful, compact frame and make him a tough matchup," Brugler said. "He is an energetic defender with above-average get-off quickness and the athletic traits that make him a nuisance to block in space."
Games aren't played on paper, though. Fowler's returning from a serious injury, and in many respects he faces the same long odds of making a short-term impact that rookie pass-rushers do.
But Bradley got the head coaching job in Jacksonville because of his defensive acumen. That defense hinges on the Leo end collapsing the pocket.
And Fowler's the guy Bradley hand-picked to do that.
Superstar Potential: 25 Watts
Kony Ealy, DE, Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers had one of the NFL's most feared defenses in 2015. The team ranked sixth in the NFL with 44 sacks, despite having injury issues at the defensive end position for much of the year.
Last year, the team patched the problem with the addition of veteran free agent Jared Allen. Now that Allen's called it a career, the Panthers are looking for a permanent solution in 2016.
That solution's name is Kony Ealy.
The Panthers' second-round pick in 2014, Ealy picked up four sacks in limited playing time as a rookie. Last year he saw over 650 snaps and increased his sack total relative to his rookie season...by one.
Ealy ranked 41st of 48 qualifiers among 4-3 defensive ends at Pro Football Focus in 2015—not a number that inspires supreme confidence in a breakout 2016.
His performance in Super Bowl 50 is another story.
Despite playing fewer than 25 snaps in the loss to the Denver Broncos, Ealy had a performance for the ages. No player in Super Bowl history had ever recorded multiple sacks and intercepted a pass in a game.
Ealy not only had three sacks and a pick, but he threw in a forced fumble as a bonus.
Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott told Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer that he thinks that performance may have been Ealy's "lightbulb" moment:
With respect to Kony, you hope that that was a chance for him to make a jump. Yet this year will be a new year.
This will be a big year for Kony and we’ll see exactly how he handled this offseason, just like the rest of the players. I do believe we saw him around the building and putting forth the effort in the training room and the weight room this offseason, in terms of getting himself to the point where he’s potentially ready to go and in the best shape of his life, we hope, for training camp.
Talent isn't the issue, at least according to Nolan Nawrocki of NFL.com, who called Ealy a "big, athletic, ascending, pass-rush talent with the size, burst and flexibility to pressurize the edge as a right defensive end," in the days leading up to the 2014 draft.
In 2016, Ealy's going to get his full-time chance to show that the Super Bowl was more than just one big game.
It was his arrival as a Pro Bowl pass-rusher.
Superstar Potential: 35 Watts
Jadeveon Clowney, OLB, Houston Texans
There isn't a defensive player in the NFL over the past decade who's been a victim of his own hype more than Houston Texans outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney.
It all started with one hit. One incredible, bone-jarring collision with a running back in a bowl game while Clowney was at South Carolina.
Admit it. You thought the RB's head was still in that helmet as it rolled across the ground.
From that moment on, it was preordained. Clowney wasn't just going to be good; he was going to dominate the NFL. Space was cleared for his bust in Canton before the Texans even made Clowney the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft.
Things didn't work out like that. At all.
Clowney's first NFL season was all but wiped out by microfracture surgery—part of a running theme that's dogged Clowney since college and continues to today. He's seemingly always battling one injury or another, and he's already missed 15 of a possible 32 games through two NFL seasons.
There's been the microfracture surgery, a meniscus procedure, a sports hernia operation and a concussion as a rookie. Then ankle woes and a lower back injury in 2015.
Houston general manager Rick Smith told Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle he's hopeful Clowney's luck is changing after a relatively healthy offseason:
When he's been on the field, he's been pretty disruptive, pretty impactful. It's just that he has suffered some injuries, which you would hope is that he's already had as many as he needs to have, right? Just from a standpoint of luck, hopefully the guy has had his share of injuries and he will have an opportunity to play for an extended amount of time because I think what you see, when you see him on the field, you see productive play.
He's going to work at that. Some of those injuries it's not like he's getting hurt because he's not working. The nature of the injuries he's had are not such that it's an indicator of the guy's not being conditioned or ready to play. It's just the nature of the game. Hopefully, he's had his share of them and he'll be on the field consistently.
If Smith's correct and Clowney can stay on the field, look out. There's a reason Clowney was the No. 1 pick in 2014. He's a 270-pound block of granite with 4.5-second speed. It's a dizzying combination of quickness and power, and Clowney has shown flashes of being essentially unblockable—even at the NFL level.
It happened quietly, but Clowney was the ninth-ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 573 snaps last year, per Pro Football Focus. And playing on the same defense as J.J. Watt (and Whitney Mercilus) leaves opponents unable to double-team Clowney with any regularity.
That's a problem given Clowney can be on and past a single blocker before they know what happened.
As Wilson wrote, Clowney made his plans for 2016 clear following Houston's Wild Card Game loss to the Chiefs.
"I'm going to come back and dominate the league," Clowney said. "I know what I can do. I think I'm going to come back and dominate the league next year."
He may yet live up to that hype after all.
Superstar Potential: 40 Watts
Danielle Hunter, DE, Minnesota Vikings
The Minnesota Vikings are quietly building the modern version of the "No Name" defense. End Everson Griffen, linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr and safety Harrison Smith are far from household names.
But the youngsters form the foundation of a defense that helped propel the Vikings to an NFC North title in 2015.
And second-year defensive end Danielle Hunter is the next player about the join their midst.
Hunter had six sacks in spot duty as a rookie, and as is the case with most of Mike Zimmer's players, Hunter knows better than to rest on those laurels. Instead, he spent the offseason training with Adrian Peterson, adding several pounds of muscle to his lanky frame.
As ESPN.com's Ben Goessling wrote, there's already a palpable amount of buzz around Hunter as the Vikings prepare to open training camp:
Hunter has spent part of his offseason training with running back Adrian Peterson at his gym in Houston. After a six-sack rookie season, Hunter could be in line for bigger things in Year 2. While training with Peterson, Hunter has done some boxing as a way to develop his moves and counters for NFL offensive tackles. Keep an eye on how much playing time he gets at left end, where veteran Brian Robison still figures to be a prominent part of the Vikings' defense.
According to Chris Tomasson of the Pioneer Press, the new-and-improved Hunter also caught the eye of teammate Kyle Rudolph:
Danielle was 20 years old most of last season, and at 20 years old you're still a kid, your body is still developing. But there aren't many defensive ends that have the skill set he does. He has long arms, he's strong and quick, and when you have two mentors like (Robison and defensive end Everson Griffen) to learn from, it puts you in a great opportunity to be successful.
Robison, the team's longtime left defensive end, is a capable veteran presence and solid run defender. But he's well past his prime and wasn't more than an average pass-rusher when he was in it.
Hunter oozes upside, and while Zimmer won't just hand him a full-time role, it's a safe bet he plays a higher percentage of snaps this year, especially if he can show that added weight didn't sap his impressive quickness.
Playing opposite Griffen and facing single-teams all day long, that could easily portend a double-digit breakout in the sacks column.
Superstar Potential: 50 Watts
Leonard Williams, DE, New York Jets
There's a reason J.J. Watt is held in such high esteem. He does things that just aren't done—at least not by 3-4 ends.
Take Calais Campbell of the Arizona Cardinals, for instance. No one would argue that Campbell's a great player. Any 3-4 team in the NFL would do cartwheels to have him setting the edge.
Yet Campbell has never tallied double-digit sacks. Not once in eight seasons.
It's partly due to the increased size their position requires. And partly due to the two-gap responsibilities many schemes require of them. Whatever the reason, three-man ends with big-time pass-rush upside (like Watt) are a relative rarity.
The Jets already had one in Muhammad Wilkerson. In 2015, the draft gods saw fit to gift them another when Leonard Williams of USC fell into their laps at No. 6 overall.
In the opinion of Mike Mayock of NFL Network, it was a gift that dropped the No. 1 overall prospect of the 2015 draft into Gang Green's midst.
"Williams was the best player in the draft regardless of position," Mayock said. "If you're the Jets, you had to take him. The sky's the limit with this kid. He's stout against the run and athletic as can be."
Williams' rookie numbers left some disappointed. Despite playing over 750 snaps in his first season, Williams managed only three sacks and didn't have a full one to his credit until the month of December.
However, those numbers don't tell the whole story. Williams was a force against the run from Day 1, finished third among 3-4 ends in quarterback hits and finished the year seventh at his position in the rankings at PFF.
Williams told Kieran Darcy of ESPN.com that he intends to convert more of those near-misses into sacks in 2016:
I got to the quarterback a lot last year, but they were just hits, those aren't the stats I'm looking for. I want to get sacks. Those little seconds matter, getting to the quarterback.
So I've been doing a lot of work during the offseason on my pass rushing and stuff like that, and I just feel more comfortable being a pro, playing in the NFL now with that year under my belt. So I'm just looking forward to my second year. ...
... I never really set myself to a certain number, cause I can always exceed that number, so I wouldn't want to limit myself. I just want to pick up my numbers overall -- more [tackles for loss], more sacks, more tackles, everything.
Williams will have a chance to show what he's learned early. With Wilkerson returning from a broken leg and Sheldon Richardson suspended for Week 1, the Jets will lean on the youngster out of the gate.
Jets defensive line coach Pepper Johnson didn't mince words when discussing Williams' potential. "He's physically capable of being one of the better defensive linemen in the league," Johnson said.
The talent's there. That's not in question. And if Williams can get his pass-rushing acumen caught up to his run-stuffing skills, the accolades are going to follow.
Superstar Potential: 70 Watts
Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams
OK, so asking Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald to get better is something of a tall order.
In 2015, Donald rampaged his way to 69 tackles and 11 sacks. He finished second to Watt in Defensive Player of the Year voting.
And as Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus reported, per that site's rankings, Donald played second fiddle to no man. His grade of 99.2 was not only the highest of any player at any position in 2015, it was the highest grade the site has ever given. Less than a point shy of perfection:
Aaron Donald is beginning his career in the same way J.J. Watt began his. Like Watt, Donald is suffering from the disbelief caused by just how good he has been. He led the league as a rookie defensive tackle a year ago, and this season, he has catapulted his grade into a stratosphere only inhabited by Watt. We now know Watt to be a generationally great player, and so simply for Donald to have joined him in that echelon of play causes recoil in most people's minds.
At one point, people argued that Donald was the product of a dominant Rams D-line, but this season should dispel that fallacy. Without Robert Quinn for much of the season, Donald continued to dominate.
In two short seasons I've gone from saying that comparing Donald to Warren Sapp was premature to wondering if Donald is actually better. He really is that good. His first step truly is that terrifying.
Right about now you're wondering what more Donald could possibly do. Battle an alien invasion, perhaps? Stop a sentient robot from destroying the Earth?
We may be about to find out. Donald told Conor Orr of NFL.com he intends to earn the praise of those who mention him in the same breath as King J.J. the First:
He's one of the best defensive players -- when he's done he'll be considered one of the best defensive players to ever play the game. The things he does, the numbers he puts up, it's hard to do. To put up 20.5 sacks and come back and do 17.5, he's a special player and to have his name associated with mine -- it's pretty cool. I still have a lot of work to do to have my name associated in a conversation with that guy and I gotta continue to put up the numbers to match.
Sapp's career best in sacks was back in 2000, when the Hall of Famer rolled up 16.5.
It's a number Donald's capable of hitting this year.
And if he does, we may be wondering if it's fair to mention other players in the same breath as him.
Superstar Potential: 95 Watts
Khalil Mack, DE/OLB, Oakland Raiders
On some level, it isn't exactly fair to place Khalil Mack on this list. After his awe-inspiring 77-tackle, 15-sack performance for the Raiders in 2015, it's safe to say Mack has "arrived."
But unfair is an apt word with Mack—just ask the poor slobs who have to try to block him.
Mack's stats are jaw-dropping enough, but when you consider that Mack added playing with his hand down to his repertoire prior to his second NFL season and then went on to rack up 15 sacks...
Well, that's just wild.
It wasn't Miller—he of the $19 million a season—who was the top-rated outside linebacker at Pro Football Focus in 2015. That title went to Mack...and it wasn't close.
Consider this: Miller received the second-highest overall grade, at a lofty 49.8.
Mack's grade in pass-rushing alone was 48 even.
Five of Mack's 15 sacks (yes, five) came in a December win over the Denver Broncos. And as Miller told NFL Network (via Scott Bair of CSN Bay Area), he was impressed with Mack's showing that day:
Khalil one-man wrecked our whole team. He ran straight through the offensive tackle. It was incredible. I feel like we're two totally different players. I don’t think it’s fair to compare Khalil to me or any other pass rusher who has come through the National Football League. Khalil is just special.
Mind you, this isn't some scrub talking about Mack. This is the reigning Super Bowl MVP. The wealthiest defensive player in NFL history all but admitting that as good as he is, Mack is even better.
Sports Illustrated agreed, calling Mack the league's best pass-rusher at 25 years old:
At this point, there's no edge defender better at defending the run at the point of attack than Mack. The trait that stands out is his tremendously low pad level, which is a big problem for the taller tackles because it allows his to get inside and under their long arms. Combine that with strength and an explosive burst, and the NFL's next great edge disruptor has arrived.
Arrive he has. So much so that if Mack turns in another year like 2015, J.J. Watt's title as the best defensive player in football isn't going to be so certain anymore.
Superstar Potential: 100 Watts