NFL 1000: Ranking the Most Unblockable Pass-Rushers

Doug Farrar@@BR_DougFarrar NFL Lead ScoutJune 23, 2017

NFL 1000: Ranking the Most Unblockable Pass-Rushers

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    When we talk about what makes pass-rushers “unblockable,” it’s not really about sacks, hits and hurries, though those are the positive aftereffects. You can lead the league in a pass-rush category with one or two moves if you’re in the right set of defensive schemes, you have other “unblockables” on the line with you and you’re teeing off on undermanned blockers who have other things to deal with on your line. It’s not that sacks, hits and hurries are less-than-revealing arbiters of unblockability; it’s more that they don’t tell the whole story. 

    Twelve players had 11 or more sacks last season, and seven of those players are not on this list. The top player on this list had 11 sacks last season, while the No. 10 player led the league with 15.5.

    At a certain point, as is true with everything having to do with football, you have to go to the tape to round out the story. And the tape will tell you which pass-rushers are the hardest to block on a play-to-play basis, regardless of scheme or surrounding talent.

    The best pass-rushers have a full array of moves to counter whatever blockers try to do to them. They can bull-rush with impressive upper-body strength and a mechanically sound foundation. They can ride a tackle around the pocket, using the “dip-and-dip” move to get under a blocker’s shoulders and move inside to the quarterback. They understand gaps and know when to shoot through them to disrupt the play. They can win with arm-over, rip and swim moves. A few can do all of this from multiple gaps, which is an incredibly important skill as NFL defensive lines become less defined and demand more versatility.

    The players on this list aren’t necessarily the most well-rounded defensive linemen and linebackers, though most of them have a complete skill set. These 10 players are the ones who make themselves the toughest to block with peerless combinations of technique, game understanding, toughness and tenacity.

10. Vic Beasley, DE, Atlanta Falcons

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    The Falcons selected Vic Beasley out of Clemson with the eighth pick in the 2015 draft, and he had just four sacks in his rookie season. So, after the usual talk of “bust” for a first-year pass-rusher (which, of course, ignores the fact that at the NFL level, pass-rushers generally take at least a full year to develop), Beasley developed just fine, leading the league with 15.5 quarterback takedowns in the regular season. He also racked up 16.5 quarterback hits and 33.5 hurries, according to D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

    Beasley’s primary attribute is an ungodly speed off the snap that allows him to occasionally just blow right by blockers around the edge. He’s also improved his footwork—Beasley is good at transitioning quickly between gaps on inside stunts, and he’s developing an embryonic inside counter. At times, the Falcons will line him up between the guards at linebacker level and let him move through the inside gaps, and he’s very effective at that. Very few players at any level have Beasley’s raw acceleration to and through the offensive line.

    Where Beasley needs work, and where opponents adapted to him in the playoffs, is that he’s not terribly powerful when he needs to push through blocks or use a bull-rush. Like a lot of younger speed-rushers, he can be negated when he’s pushed out of the play and needs to regenerate power. That’s a common transitional issue, and there’s reason to believe that with his talent and Atlanta’s fine coaching staff (starting with head coach Dan Quinn, who’s a bit of a genius when it comes to deploying defensive linemen from multiple positions), Beasley will eventually develop all the subtleties he needs to be a top-five pass-rusher.

    The addition of 2017 first-round pick Takkarist McKinley will give Beasley an estimable bookend, but the third-year man understands that after a breakout season, he’ll get more (and different) attention from enemy blockers.

    “When they bring three, it’s pretty rough, but the main thing is realizing the play before the play actually happens,” Beasley recently said of the Falcons’ 2016 playoff run, per Ledbetter, when he was unable to register a sack in three games. “That’s when you realize what you are about to get and what’s going to be coming your way. That all goes into the game plan and getting ready throughout the week. I think being well-prepared will definitely help me to become more effective.”

9. Markus Golden, OLB, Arizona Cardinals

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    Markus Golden may be the least-known name on this list, but he absolutely belongs. The second-year man from Missouri really came into his own in 2016, when he posted 12.5 sacks and 15 hurries. Yes, Golden did benefit from a formidable group of linemen around him last year, especially Calais Campbell and Chandler Jones, but when you watch the tape, it’s clear that Golden would succeed in any scheme, with any group of teammates around him.

    “Markus Golden has a motor like no other,” Jones said of his teammate last October, per Adam Green of ArizonaSports.com. “The way he gets after the play, the way he rushes after the quarterback—he doesn’t give up.

    “You’ll see him on the film and he just never stops going, he never stops.”

    At 6'2" and 255 pounds, Golden is an average-sized outside pass-rusher, and his primary attribute is a combination of speed and body control that is rare for a player with his level of experience. As a stand-up linebacker, he has the ability to simply run around blockers or through gaps with excellent timing, and when he’s dealing with a quarterback on the move, he’s great at re-centering his body and staying on target to get the pressure or sack. His acceleration to the quarterback once he’s turned to get to the pocket is spectacular. That’s why the Cardinals can align him to either edge, with his hand on or off the ground, or move him around the formation.

    Moreover, Golden has developed the upper-body strength to deal with blockers in his way—he has an excellent “power push” to bull-rush the blocker after an initial hit, and he can get low to the ground quickly to use leverage in a way that launches him through to the pocket. He’s an ideal cog in James Bettcher’s aggressive defense, and you’ll be hearing his name more and more once it becomes clear that he’s more than a one-year wonder. Golden ended his second season with 5.5 sacks in his last three games against the Saints, Seahawks and Rams.

8. Lorenzo Alexander, OLB, Buffalo Bills

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    One of the things I looked for when assembling this list is a pass-rusher’s ability to succeed from multiple places on the field, because in today’s defenses, positional versatility is a prime attribute. Few defenders got to the quarterback in more different ways than Lorenzo Alexander, who totaled 12.5 sacks for the Bills. Not bad for a career journeyman who had just nine total sacks in his previous nine seasons, but the marriage between Alexander and the Bills was a perfect example of right place, right time.

    When rookie first-round pass-rusher Shaq Lawson underwent shoulder surgery after the 2016 draft, then-head coach Rex Ryan knew he wouldn’t have Lawson for the start of the season. So, the Bills signed Alexander to a one-year, $885,000 contract—basically the veteran's minimum for a player who’s been in the league as long as Alexander has. It turned out to be one of the great bargains of the 2016 season, though Ryan and his brother Rob, the team’s defensive coordinator, deserve a ton of credit for understanding Alexander’s attributes and putting him in multiple positions to succeed.

    I detailed Alexander’s three-sack game against the Rams last October in an NFL1000 scouting piece, and it showed just how versatile he had the potential to be. Yes, the Rams offensive line was horrid for the most part last season, but Alexander stood out nonetheless when you isolated his performance. Those three sacks came from three different points—from between the right guard and right tackle as a stand-up linebacker, on an overload blitz from the left edge and on a twist to fool the left tackle and left guard.

    You’ll see Alexander get rushes from a more traditional edge position with his hand on the ground, but he also has the ability to line up at middle linebacker depth and shoot gaps.

    The Bills rewarded Alexander with a two-year, $5.95 million contract in March, but they also fired the Ryan brothers. New head coach Sean McDermott has historically preferred an aggressive 4-3 base defense with some blitz elements, and new defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier comes from the Cover 2/Tampa 2 school. We’ll have to see how Alexander fits in a more traditional linebacker spot as opposed to the hybrid role the Ryans created for him.

7. Cameron Jordan, DE, New Orleans Saints

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    The Saints have consistently struggled to put even a league-average defense on the field over the last few years, which explains the franchise’s four 7-9 seasons in the last five years despite its estimable offensive firepower. When that happens, defensive players on such teams tend to be underrated, even when their efforts are consistently spectacular.

    Such is the case for Cameron Jordan. Last season, per Pro Football Focus, Jordan put up 79 total pressures, the same number as Broncos edge-rusher Von Miller amassed, despite the fact that at 6'4" and 287 pounds, he outweighs Miller by almost 40 pounds. In addition, Jordan isn’t playing on the edge all the time with interior linemen to pick up the slack.

    Not to discount Miller’s efforts at all, but Jordan’s pressure numbers are singularly impressive because he plays on both shoulders of the offensive tackle and occasionally kicks inside. Jordan had just 7.5 total sacks last season (PFF has him with nine in part because it counts half-sacks as full sacks), and he’s one of the prime examples of why you can’t just look at sack totals when evaluating pass-rushers.

    A lot of defensive linemen in the 280-pound range can wind up as “tweeners” at the NFL level—too big to display defensive end speed and too small to put forth defensive tackle power. Jordan does both. He can bull-rush a guard right out of position just as well as he can take a tackle off his mark with a foot-fake and an inside counter. And he’s not a one-trick pony—Jordan is also a very good run defender. If he had a better defense around him, more people would know just how good he is. 

6. Michael Bennett, Seattle Seahawks

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    Bennett missed five games due to injury in 2016—the first games he’d missed since 2011—but he was still the epicenter of Seattle’s top-ranked pass rush. Defensive end Cliff Avril is the ideal bookend to Bennett with his speed around the edge, and Frank Clark looked pretty good when he was asked to step into Bennett’s role as an end-tackle hybrid.

    The Seahawks also selected Michigan State lineman Malik McDowell in the second round of the 2017 draft, and since McDowell is also a hybrid defender with multi-gap pressure ability, one might think the Seahawks are preparing for life beyond the 31-year-old Bennett.

    That may be true, but the tape showed in 2016 that when he was healthy, Bennett was still an unholy terror. There are a handful of defensive linemen at any position who are quicker off the snap than Bennett, and this is really a problem for guards who are used to tackles who are generally not as good at converting speed to power. And when Bennett kicks outside to end—he does so for about half of his snaps these days—he still has all the speed he needs to get around the edge and a veteran’s understanding of the moves needed to confound offensive tackles. Moreover, he’s one of the best run defenders in the league.

    Bennett can bull-rush you out of the play just as easily as he can run around you, but his most consistent and unblockable attribute is the combination of speed and gap awareness. He has an amazing ability to read offensive line openings as they’re happening, and he exploits them more than most. He had just five sacks and 43 total pressures last season, but if he’s healthy again in 2017, there will be no doubt as to who is the main man in Seattle’s furious four-man front.

5. Brandon Graham, DE, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Brandon Graham may be the current president of the NFL’s “Sack numbers don’t tell the whole story” club. He had just 5.5 official sacks in 2016 and has never put up more than 6.5 in any season (he did so in 2015), but he does as much as any defensive lineman in the league to create pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

    Last year, per Pro Football Focus, Graham had 83 total pressures, and a pressure once every 5.8 pass-rushing snaps, which is an incredible mark of consistency when you consider that pass rush is usually a boom-or-bust proposition by its very nature. Even the best pass-rushers have droughts, but Graham just kept bringing pressure all season.

    Graham’s primary pass-rush move, which is also highly effective in stopping running backs behind the line of scrimmage, is to align himself at an angle to the quarterback pre-snap and then shoot the gap between the guard and the tackle as quickly as possible. That’s where he uses his quickness off the snap and acceleration to the pocket to its most notable effect. At 6'1" and 263 pounds, Graham uses his relative lack of height as an advantage—low man wins in the NFL, and Graham is practiced at getting under a blocker’s pads and pushing him back.

    If hits and hurries were as common to the general public as sack numbers are, players like Graham would get more respect. As it is, Graham will have to settle for respect from his peers and coaches—and the knowledge that the tape doesn’t lie when it comes to his impact on the field.

    "He plays the game the way it should be played,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said of Graham last November, per Matt Lombardo of NJ.com. “I'll probably give him, in my mind, my greatest compliment. I wasn't the greatest player. But, if I played in the NFL, I hope that I'd play like Brandon Graham.

4. Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams

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    From John Randle (an undrafted Hall of Famer) to Geno Atkins (a fourth-round, five-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro), it’s funny how often NFL executives undervalue shorter, lighter pass-rushing defensive tackles and how often they’re proved wrong. Aaron Donald was undervalued, as well—the Pitt alum was selected 13th overall by the Rams in 2014, but when you look at that draft class, the only names you’d find above his with an approximate value to their respective teams comparable to that of Donald to the Rams might be Khalil Mack or Odell Beckham Jr. Too bad a lot of teams looked at his 6'1", 285-pound frame and thought he was less than a franchise-defining player because of that.

    Donald has been remarkably consistent throughout his short NFL career—he was named the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2014 with nine sacks, upped that total to 11 in 2015, and though the sack total dropped to eight last season, there was no downturn in his play. Offensive linemen understood more and more that if they didn’t focus on Donald while occasionally excluding other Rams linemen, the result was not going to be pretty. Donald still posted 82 total pressures in 2016, fourth highest in the league, per Pro Football Focus, which is a significantly impressive total when you consider that he plays inside the tackles on nearly every snap.

    Donald has a series of unblockable moves, but the most devastating one is a two-stepper—he’ll use his lack of height to get under a blocker’s pads and push them back, and then use a simple rip move to get by them. At other times, he’ll use his formidable upper-body strength to simply carry a blocker out of his way by grabbing that blocker by the numbers and moving him wherever Donald wants him to go. Donald also has the speed and lateral quickness to move around and through gaps on twists and stunts. And he’s just as good against the run.

    Donald has made the Pro Bowl in all three of his seasons, and he’s been a first-team All-Pro in each of the last two. But there are some who still believe he doesn’t get the recognition he deserves, as when NFL Network named him the 15th-best player in its most recent Top 100 poll.

    Those people are probably right.

3. J.J. Watt, DL, Houston Texans

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    Remember this guy?

    J.J. Watt missed all but three games last year with a back injury—the first games he’s missed in his six-year career—but he’s expected to be fully healthy and on the field in 2017. That’s very bad news for opposing offenses that were already struggling to deal with a Texans defense that had quietly become one of the league’s best in 2016, even with Watt out of the picture.

    Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney proved to be excellent pass-rushers last season, but there’s nobody in the league who does all the things Watt does the way he does them. That’s why, according to Pro Football Focus, he amassed a ridiculous 85 sacks, 151 QB hits and 316 defensive stops in his five fully healthy seasons.

    That’s not just Hall of Fame-level production—that’s all-time great production.

    What makes Watt so unblockable? First, it’s the combination of power and speed that informs everything he does on the field. Nobody standing 6'6" should have the upper-body strength he does to bull through blockers on the inside, and nobody weighing 290 pounds should be fast enough off the snap to simply run around blockers from the edge or slip through gaps on stunts and inside counters.

    Watt has lined up everywhere in just about every formation throughout his NFL career—from nose tackle to end in three- and four-man fronts, and in one-gap and two-gap schemes. Wherever he is, and whatever he’s tasked to do, he demands constant extra attention from opposing blockers. Double-teaming him inside generally doesn’t work because he’s strong enough to split those double-teams and still get to the quarterback. Chipping him on the outside is equally futile because he can move tight ends and running backs out of the way without a second thought. And with a full array of pass-rush moves, Watt’s technique is as good as any you’ll see from any pass-rusher.

    "I feel great," Watt said of his back in mid-June, per Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle. "I'm very happy with the way it responded. Obviously with the amount of time we took this time to make sure it responded properly, I would hope that it would respond the way it did. It feels great.”

    If that’s the case, the Texans may have the NFL’s most formidable pass rush in 2017, with Watt as the leader back where he belongs.

2. Von Miller, OLB, Denver Broncos

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    Von Miller finished second to Atlanta’s Vic Beasley last year for the NFL lead with 13.5 sacks, his third straight season with more than 10 quarterback takedowns. Every year in which he’s been fully healthy, Miller has finished in double digits—2013, when he missed seven games and had just five sacks, is the lone blight on a career that has otherwise been remarkable in its consistency.

    Miller had 79 total pressures last season, per Pro Football Focus, which is par for the course. His speed is his most notable attribute—nobody comes off the edge and around to the pocket with Miller’s sheer quickness—but it’s his array of pass-rush moves that sets him apart. If you’re just fast off the edge without a plan, NFL blockers will eventually catch up to you.

    Miller gets past that idea by bringing all kinds of moves to the table. He can hit with rip and swim moves, use his surprising upper-body strength to guide a tackle out of the way with leverage and use foot-fakes and counters to simply fool his opponents right out of the play. Once he hits open space, only the quickest quarterbacks have a chance to stay out of his grasp. He faces double-teams and chips on a high percentage of his pass-rushing snaps, but it doesn’t really work, because Miller has the body control to reset after getting by the first blocker, and he’ll use another killer move on the second guy.

    Still, it’s the raw speed that puts blockers at a disadvantage. There are times when Miller is so quick to the pocket that tackles can’t even get their hands up to block him before he’s halfway past them to the pocket. And if you are in his way when he’s near the quarterback, Miller can also set his feet and get under your pads to bull-rush you out of the way.

    That’s why Von Miller is the most unblockable speed-rusher in the game today—he has every move at his disposal, and he executes them all flawlessly.

1. Khalil Mack, OLB/DE, Oakland Raiders

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    The only player in the league last season to register more than 90 total pressures, per Pro Football Focus’ game-charting, Khalil Mack can bring pressure from the edge with his hand on or off the ground, or at linebacker depth. But he’s most effective as a hybrid end/linebacker on the edge, where offensive tackles face a series of nightmares on the field as they try to deal with him.

    Mack had just 11 sacks last season after registering 15 in 2015, but the tape clearly shows that there was no decline in his play in 2016—in fact, Mack improved his grasp of the subtleties that take the best pass-rushers to another level. Mack has incredible upper-body strength and lower-body leverage for his 6'3", 251-pound frame, and he uses both attributes consistently well, especially at the start of the play, where he’ll often put his blocker at an immediate disadvantage by pushing him off his base.

    Once that poor blocker is off his base, Mack can either run right past him with a quickness that has to be seen to be believed—I can’t think of another pass-rusher who’s quicker in short spaces—or bend the edge to move past to the quarterback. At other times, Mack will simply bull-rush his opponent out of the play and then turn on the jets.

    But it's the little things that make Mack the most unblockable defender in the NFL. How he’ll slow-play a tackle to make him think that he’s reading a run play and then move with speed and power through the block to the pocket. The quick rip move he uses to get separation after the first impact. The foot-fakes that have blockers, already worried about countering Mack’s pure strength, set off their game by his agility. The way he extends his arms after the first blow he strikes to push the blocker back and allow him to turn away to the quarterback.

    There are a ton of little moves Mack has developed to add to his physical skills. And he’s not just a pass-rusher—line him up around the formation and watch him do it all. In Week 12 against the Panthers, Mack became the first player since Charles Woodson in 2009 to have an interception, a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a touchdown in the same game.

    Unblockable? At his best, the 2016 AP Defensive Player of the Year is more than that. He’s unbeatable.

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