Ranking the NFL's Best Pass-Rushing Fronts After J.J. Watt Signing

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistMarch 2, 2021

FILE - In this Jan. 3, 2021, file photo, Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt (99) waves to fans as he walks off the field after an NFL football game against the Tennessee Titans in Houston. Watt is gone from the Texans and Deshaun Watson wants out, too. The Texans have been making plenty of headlines this offseason. Not one has been good. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith, File)
Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

Now that J.J. Watt has become a member of the Arizona Cardinals, that evolving team's pass-rushing core contains two multiple-time All-Pros in Watt and Chandler Jones plus the NFC's sack leader from the final 12 weeks of 2020 in impending free agent Haason Reddick.

While Watt and Jones face questions regarding age and durability and Reddick could soon sign elsewhere after what might have been an aberrational season, a squad that has made the lion's share of its headlines on offense thanks to head coach Kliff Kingsbury, quarterback Kyler Murray and superstar wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins could have one of the best pass rushes in the league.

Since Watt has signed, let's recalibrate with a breakdown of the top pass-rushing groups in the NFL.

   

10. New Orleans Saints

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Led by perennial Pro Bowler Cameron Jordan and breakout star Trey Hendrickson, New Orleans posted the third-highest adjusted sack rate at Football Outsiders in 2020. Jordan and Hendrickson combined for 21 of the team's 45 sacks, but the former will turn 32 in July and the latter is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent.

That's far from ideal considering that 2018 first-round pick Marcus Davenport has yet to emerge for a squad that is in by the worst salary-cap jam in the league, according to Spotrac. Hence why the Saints rank lower on this list than the numbers indicate.

   

9. Baltimore Ravens

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There's a lot up in the air because notable Ravens edge-defenders Matthew Judon, Yannick Ngakoue and Pernell McPhee are slated to hit the open market at the start of the new league year. Still, a team that possessed the league's fourth-highest pressure rate last year appears to have enough cap space to remain fierce up front.

Five Ravens—including key playmakers Calais Campbell, Patrick Queen and Tyus Bowser—had double-digit quarterback hits in 2020. The average defense had three players hit that mark.

   

8. Denver Broncos

The Broncos didn't get a lot of publicity because legend Von Miller was injured in 2020, but Vic Fangio's D still posted the fifth-best adjusted sack rate and the seventh-best pressure rate in the league thanks to another strong season by young star Bradley Chubb and breakout campaigns by 24-year-old revelations Malik Reed and Dre'Mont Jones.

A lot of that unit's success could be tied to the defensive mastermind at head coach, but the talent is there and the Broncos have the cap space to improve up front ahead of what they hope will be a competitive season.

   

7. Philadelphia Eagles

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Jim Schwartz's wide-nine scheme is fabled for a reason, and the Eagles have the talent to deliver with Fletcher Cox flanked by Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett, Malik Jackson, Javon Hargrave, Vinny Curry and Josh Sweat.

All seven of those players had at least eight quarterback hits in 2020 for a defense that led the NFC with a pressure rate of 27.9 percent. The Eagles are in serious cap trouble, but every key pass-rusher except Curry is under contract for at least next season.

   

6. San Francisco 49ers

On paper, San Francisco was no bueno in 2020. But it's hard to take that into consideration because top defensive linemen Nick Bosa, Solomon Thomas and Dee Ford missed a combined 43 games.

When they were mostly healthy in 2019, the 49ers had the highest pressure rate and adjusted sack rate in the NFC. Even though they could still miss the traded DeForest Buckner, and even though Thomas has an expiring contract, a unit with Bosa, Ford, Arik Armstead and 2020 first-round pick Javon Kinlaw up front should have a chance to dominate.

   

5. Los Angeles Rams

We could have listed the Rams as "Aaron Donald." The reigning and three-time Defensive Player of the Year is so dominant that his presence alone would be enough for Los Angeles to make the list.

But veteran Leonard Floyd quietly tallied 10.5 sacks and 19 quarterback hits off the edge in 2020, while Michael Brockers put up his usual solid numbers on the other side. As a result, the Rams led the NFC with 53 sacks and posted the highest adjusted sack rate in the conference.

And while they're not in good cap shape and Floyd and Samson Ebukam are headed toward free agency, Donald alone keeps them in this conversation.

   

4. Arizona Cardinals

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

If it all comes together, the Cardinals could have the best pass rush in the league. After all, Watt is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year who has posted 17-plus quarterback hits in three consecutive seasons (even though he missed half of the 2019 campaign), Jones was the Defensive Player of the Year runner-up with 19 sacks in 2019, and Reddick has sky-high potential.

But there's a better chance Reddick will leave, the 31-year-old Watt has missed 32 games over the last five seasons, and the 31-year-old Jones is coming off a biceps injury. So, it's an all-or-nothing situation for a team that is trying to make a run.

Regardless, Arizona ranked in the top five in sacks and pressures in 2020 and should be expected to improve.

   

3. Washington Football Team

The Washington pass rush is on a mouth-watering trajectory.

It ranked in the top 10 in pressure rate and adjusted sack rate as No. 2 pick Chase Young earned Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2020, and he should only get better alongside the 24-year-old Montez Sweat (nine sacks as a sophomore in 2020), 26-year-old Jonathan Allen (14 quarterback hits) and 23-year-old Daron Payne (three sacks and eight quarterback hits).

Washington could lose impending free agent Ryan Kerrigan simply because other positions deserve more focus, but Kerrigan will turn 33 in August, and that foursome of recent first-round selections is so promising that it might not matter.

   

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

The defending champions are pretty confident they can bring back all or most of their key impending free agents. If that happens and Shaquil Barrett and Ndamukong Suh return alongside Jason Pierre-Paul, Devin White and William Gholston, it will be hard to knock the Bucs off their pedestal.

That group ranked sixth in adjusted sack rate, fourth in sacks and third in pressure rate during the 2020 regular season before becoming even more of a force with eight sacks in its last two playoff outings to help capture the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

If Tampa Bay loses Barrett in particular, it will be a different story. But it looks more likely than not that the 28-year-old will return.

   

1. Pittsburgh Steelers

This is a little complicated because the Steelers' No. 2 pass-rusher, Bud Dupree, may get away in free agency as a result of the team's salary-cap crunch.

But would that be enough to cost Pittsburgh the top spot? The Steelers have led the NFL in sacks in each of the last four seasons and again topped the league in adjusted sack rate and pressure rate (by a wide margin) in 2020. Even after Dupree suffered an ACL injury in Week 12, the T.J. Watt-led rush continued to rock.

Watt's presence is huge, but don't forget about Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt and even Robert Spillane, who flashed potential.

This group just knows how to bring it.

   

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon.