Ranking the Top 7 Pass-Rushing Duos Heading into 2020 NFL Season

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistJune 16, 2020

Ranking the Top 7 Pass-Rushing Duos Heading into 2020 NFL Season

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    With the NFL spotlight on quarterbacks, teams pay a premium price for defensive players who can sack them.

    In terms of guaranteed money, only quarterbacks and pass-rushers rank within the league's top 14 earners, per Spotrac. According to ESPN's Jeremy Fowler, the Cleveland Browns have opened negotiations on a massive extension for edge-rusher Myles Garrett.

    One aggressive defender near the pocket can force signal-callers to change their protections at the line of scrimmage. Two viable threats can wreak a game plan.

    We'll rank the top seven pass-rushing duos, which may include two edge-rushers or an outside linebacker/defensive end and a defensive tackle.

    We've based the order on recent production with a primary focus on sacks and quarterback pressures, a player's career track record in those statistical categories, chemistry between teammates and All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors.

    Although All-Pro and Pro Bowl selections reflect a player's overall performance, defensive linemen often earn those accolades because of their pass-rushing statistics.

7. Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Tampa Bay Buccaneers edge-rushers Jason Pierre-Paul (left) and Shaquil Barrett (right)
    Tampa Bay Buccaneers edge-rushers Jason Pierre-Paul (left) and Shaquil Barrett (right)Associated Press

    Justin Houston and DeForest Buckner of the Indianapolis Colts garnered consideration here. Jason Pierre-Paul's recent production and Shaquil Barrett's 2019 sack title gave the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' passing-rushing duo an edge for the No. 7 spot.

    Over the last two seasons, Barrett (tied for eighth) and Pierre-Paul (T-11th) rank higher than Houston (T-14th) and Buckner (T-16th) in sacks.

    Following a 2015 fireworks accident, Pierre-Paul had his right index finger amputated, but he has continued to take down quarterbacks. Since 2016, he's registered at least seven sacks each season and recorded 12.5 in his first year with the Buccaneers in 2018.

    Barrett has significant upside. With the Denver Broncos, he actively served as a backup through most of four terms (2015-18) behind DeMarcus Ware, Shane Ray and Bradley Chubb. The 27-year-old took full advantage of his full-time starting position in Tampa Bay and may continue to pose a threat on the outside.

    We have to see more from Barrett to move this pair up, though the Buccaneers have a solid mix of proven and high potential talent within the first unit on the edge.

6. Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn, Chicago Bears

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    Chicago Bears edge-rusher Khalil Mack
    Chicago Bears edge-rusher Khalil MackDylan Buell/Getty Images

    In March, Robert Quinn signed with the Chicago Bears. He's coming off one of his best seasons, logging 11.5 sacks and 35 quarterback pressures (tied for 14th).

    Unlike Shaquil Barrett, Quinn has an extensive history as an effective pass-rusher. That doesn't mean he'll match or top his 2019 campaign in Dallas, but we can trust him to produce more than a one-year wonder. He's recorded 80.5 sacks for his career—one more than Jason Pierre-Paul.

    With 8.5 sacks during the previous term, Khalil Mack had a down overall performance compared to his 2015-18 stretch, a period in which he logged double-digit sacks in each campaign. Yet the three-time All-Pro still finished in a tie for seventh in quarterback pressures (45) last year.

    Perhaps Mack needed to adjust within a new system under defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, who replaced Vic Fangio. With his talent, he should bounce back strong in 2020.

    If Quinn performs at a level similar to his short stint in Dallas, the Bears will bring a lot of heat on the edge.

5. Frank Clark and Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Kansas City Chiefs defensive end (Frank Clark) and defensive tackle (Chris Jones)
    Kansas City Chiefs defensive end (Frank Clark) and defensive tackle (Chris Jones)Peter Aiken/Getty Images

    Frank Clark and Chris Jones accumulated a combined 17 sacks in 2019.

    Barring a trade, the Chiefs will have Jones for at least another term on the franchise tag. He's been the team's sack leader over the last two seasons and ranked third in the NFL for the 2018 campaign. Because of his recent production, the Pro Bowl defensive tackle has emerged as one of the premier interior pass-rushers across the league.

    The Chiefs parted ways with Justin Houston (released) and Dee Ford (traded to the San Francisco 49ers) during the 2019 offseason. The front office acquired Frank Clark, who provided immediate impact under the team's new defensive coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo. He logged eight sacks.

    Since 2018, Jones and Clark have put offensive lines on notice, ranking sixth and tied for 11th, respectively, in sacks. The two pass-rushers registered 27 quarterback pressures apiece last year.

    While no one knows if Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano can optimize his talented edge-rushers, we saw Clark and Jones put together a solid campaign under Spagnuolo. The Chiefs will field a top inside-outside pass-rushing pair in 2020.

4. Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, Denver Broncos

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    Denver Broncos edge-rushers Bradley Chubb (left) and Von Miller (right)
    Denver Broncos edge-rushers Bradley Chubb (left) and Von Miller (right)Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

    As a rookie, Bradley Chubb became a solid complement to Von Miller.

    In 2018, the Denver Broncos fielded the second-best tandem in sacks (26.5) with Miller and Chubb on the edge. Only Chris Jones and Dee Ford accumulated more as a duo (28.5).

    Chubb tore his ACL four games into the 2019 campaign. Going into his third term, he could top his star teammate in sacks. Defensive coordinator Ed Donatell expects to see the 2018 first-rounder flourish in 2020.

    "He's full speed and ready to go," Donatell told reporters. "You'll see a really good year from him."

    Miller's double-digit sack streak ended after five seasons. He led the Broncos with eight in 2019. The three-time All-Pro still logged 37 quarterback pressures, which ranked 12th leaguewide.

    When Miller and Chubb suited up together for a full season, they provided more impact in the pass rush than Frank Clark and Jones last year.

    Broncos head coach Vic Fangio served as the defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears from 2015 to 2018. Those groups ranked seventh and third, respectively, in sacks for the latter two terms. He'll likely bring out the best in his edge-rushing tandem that dominated offensive lines before his arrival.

3. Preston Smith and Za'Darius Smith, Green Bay Packers

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    Green Bay Packers edge-rushers Preston Smith (left) and Za'Darius Smith (right)
    Green Bay Packers edge-rushers Preston Smith (left) and Za'Darius Smith (right)Associated Press

    General manager Brian Gutekunst invested heavily in the pass rush during the 2019 offseason, signing Preston Smith and Za'Darius Smith to deals that combined for $36 million in guaranteed cash.

    Thus far, Gutekunst's expenditures have paid off. Both edge-rushers had a breakout campaign, logging career highs in sacks.

    For most of his four seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, Za'Darius held a backup role. While serviceable in that position, he's become a key component of the Green Bay Packers' revamped defense as the team's 2019 sack leader.

    Preston had a solid resume in a pass-rushing role with the Washington Redskins, though he took on more pass-coverage assignments during the 2018 term. The Packers unleashed him, which allowed the 6'5", 265-pounder to complement Za'Darius on passing downs.

    In 2019, the Packers' pair of Smiths accumulated the third-most sacks (25.5) between two players on the same team. While Von Miller and Bradley Chubb attempt to rebound from down and shortened seasons, Za'Darius and Preston look to build on their best campaigns.

2. Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, Los Angeles Chargers

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    Los Angeles Chargers edge-rushers Melvin Ingram (left) and Joey Bosa (right)
    Los Angeles Chargers edge-rushers Melvin Ingram (left) and Joey Bosa (right)Associated Press

    In 2019, Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram didn't match up to Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith in pass-rushing statistics, but they've been a productive duo for four seasons.

    One could question if the Packers' pass-rushers can maintain their above-average sack rate after one standout year. We've come to expect Bosa and Ingram to produce at a high level.

    Since 2016, Bosa has recorded 40 sacks, which is tied for eighth and includes three double-digit campaigns. In 2019, he listed third in quarterback pressures (54).

    Ingram has earned Pro Bowl honors in each of the last three terms in large part because of his presence near the pocket, registering 24.5 sacks during that stretch.

    Ingram's numbers may not jump off the screen, but NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah broke down film to show how the "walk-around" defender helps create advantageous one-on-one matchups for Bosa.

    Because of their continuity, Bosa and Ingram have a synergy that's different than any of the previous duos listed.

1. T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle Cameron Heyward (left) and edge-rusher T.J. Watt (right)
    Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle Cameron Heyward (left) and edge-rusher T.J. Watt (right)Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    Although Bud Dupree logged more sacks than Cameron Heyward in 2019, the latter has been a more consistent pass-rusher on the inside in recent years.

    Recently, Heyward has reached another level as a persistent presence near the pocket.

    Before 2017, he didn't eclipse 7.5 sacks in a single term. He's topped that number in each of the last three campaigns with three Pro Bowl and two All-Pro nods along the way. The disruptive defensive tackle has aged well going into his 10th term.

    Since 2017, T.J. Watt lists fifth in sacks (34.5). He had an impressive 2019 season, leading the league in quarterback pressures (59) and forced fumbles (eight), which illustrates his mastery of the strip-sack. The Wisconsin product also became a two-time Pro Bowler and an All-Pro.

    Over the last three years, Watt and Heyward have higher sack numbers than Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram

    Furthermore, Watt and Heyward don't have durability concerns. They have missed one game apiece since 2017. Bosa has been sidelined for 13 out of 64 career contests.

    At some point in the near future, Watt can command a megadeal. He could top whatever the Cleveland Browns give Myles Garrett, who has fewer sacks (30.5) and just one Pro Bowl selection.