In the modern day NFL, the quarterback is king, which means pass rush is the uprising peasant. You need look no further than the final game of the season, Super Bowl XLVI, to see the effects of what happens when you put an elite passer up against dominating force on the edge–even a future Hall of Famer can look human after all.
2011 boasted some big names on this list, and some big-money to go with it. Charles Johnson earned a colossal deal when he re-signed with the Panthers and Jason Babin made the switch back to Philadelphia after a terrific season-long stint in Tennessee. But while the 2011 list was impressive, 2012 may have more to offer, including three massive names at the top.
So who are the best available free agent edge rushers in 2012? Here are our thoughts on the Top 10.
1) Mario Williams, Houston Texans
Age (as of September 1st, 2012): 27
2011 Grade: +10.4
Key Stat: 24 total QB pressures from just 225 snaps in 2011.
Behind the numbers: In 2011, we were treated to just a glimpse of what Mario Williams has to bring to the table as a 3-4 Outside Linebacker in Wade Philips’ new-look Texans defense. He lasted just four full games, before tearing a pectoral muscle early in Wek 5–ironically while doing what he does best, sacking the Quarterback. While his impressive production in such limited action looks quite brilliant on paper, it is worth noting that the majority of it came in Week 1 against Indianapolis, where he put on a pass-rushing master class. It remains to be seen whether he can be an elite linebacker, but there will certainly be no end of interest for his signature in free agency given that he’s a proven commodity at defensive end. Look for Super Mario to become one of the highest paid players in the NFL.
2) John Abraham, Atlanta Falcons
2011 Grade: +37.8
Key Stat: 119 total QB pressures in the last two seasons.
Behind the numbers: John Abraham is one of those players who seems ageless. Even now, as he approaches his mid-thirties, he remains a truly elite pass rusher, one you can bank on to get to the QB on a regular basis. The problem is, once players reach this sort of age, no matter how talented they are, they can potentially be just a season away from a nose-dive in form. In 2011, Abraham was the Falcons only reliable threat rushing the passer–his 59 total pressures dwarfed the 35 that Ray Edwards could manage, who was next best, and while his age may be an issue for some, you just can’t ignore the kind of production we’re talking about here. Abraham could be a bargain for a team willing to give him a short-term deal.
3) Robert Mathis, Indianapolis Colts
2011 Grade: +16.8
Key Stat: Recorded a hit or a sack on the QB in 13 of 16 games in 2011.
Behind the numbers: Mathis has traditionally been overshadowed by Dwight Freeney as the superstar of the Colts’ defensive line, perhaps somewhat unfairly as the numbers reflect very well on both–in the past three seasons, Freeney has 190 total Quarterback pressures compared to Mathis’ 172, yet Freeney’s contract value is more than double Mathis’. Mathis had an impressive campaign in 2011 and was the best player on a struggling Colts defense. He did, however, encounter an unusually barren run of games mid-season, managing just a single pressure in 169 snaps. 44 sacks since 2008, however, will ensure Mathis is able to command top dollar, should he reach the open market.
4) Cliff Avril, Detroit Lions
2011 Grade: +4.1
Key Stat: 11 penalties made him the joint fourth most penalised defensive player in the league in 2011.
Behind the numbers: The only player to also appear on last year’s list, Avril is yet again back in at No. 4 after signing a tender which extended his stay in Detroit through the 2011 campaign. The bad news for Avril is he fell a little short of his terrific 2010 breakout season. While 56 total pressures is certainly nothing to be ashamed of, it is worth noting that 41% of them came in games against Chicago and Minnesota–teams who don’t boast particularly proficient pass-blocking right tackles. Compare that to games where he went up against some of the better guys in the business–four total pressures in two games against Green Bay (Bryan Bulaga and TJ Lang), one against Atlanta (Tyson Clabo), and zero in the game against Dallas, where he was completely shut down by Tyron Smith. It’s clear that Avril is far from the finished article, but his sack count (21 in the last two seasons) and his young age will likely mean he will still earn one of the bigger contracts of the guys on this list.
5) Michael Bennett, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2011 Grade: +26.0
Key Stat: Despite just a 47% increase in the number snaps played from 2010 to 2011, Bennett recorded more than twice as many total pressures (38 compared to 17) and more than three times as many stops (28 compared to nine).
Behind the numbers: You might be forgiven for not having heard of Michael Bennett prior to the 2011 season. Following a minimal 2009 rookie season he showed some potential in 2010, but not many could have foreseen his breakout 2011 performance. If you want proof of exactly what Bennett brings to the table, look no further than his brilliant display in Week 4 against the Colts. Bennett dominated all put in front of him that day, recording two sacks, a further three pressures, a forced fumble, and several key stops on the ball carrier for small or no gains. It’s actually in the run-stopping area of the game Bennett really excelled–his +17.2 rating was second among all edge rushers, beaten only by Terrell Suggs. As a restricted free agent, it will be interesting to see what kind of tender Bennett gets.
6) Jeremy Mincey, Jacksonville Jaguars
2011 Grade: +19.9
Key Stat: His 973 snaps was the second-highest of all 4-3 defensive ends.
Behind the numbers: In what has been a stop-start career so far, 2011 was finally the year Jeremy Mincey put his name on the map. In what was a season of struggle for the Jacksonville Jaguars, things could have been a whole lot worse had it not been for workhorses like Mincey. Participating in 93% of the Jags’ total defensive snaps (missing just 68 plays the entire season), he was by far their most consistent threat in terms of pass rush; his 57 total pressures ranked joint seventh among all players at his position. In isolation, this looks very impressive, however, when you factor in the massive number of snaps he played it reveals a pressure only occurred on just under 11% of all pass rush snaps. It’s fair to say Mincey isn’t elite–at least not yet, anyway–but he is in that bracket underneath and will present problems to opposing quarterbacks for any team able to get him on the field enough.
7) Anthony Spencer, Dallas Cowboys
2011 Grade: +10.0
Key Stat: Has a combined 129 defensive stops over the past three seasons.
Behind the numbers: The second player on the list to feature in a 3-4 front, Anthony Spencer is probably best known for being the OLB in the Cowboys’ defense who isn’t DeMarcus Ware. Unfortunately, there’s no Mathis-Freeney type situation here either, Spencer is firmly second best in this former first-round pairing. Any team prepared to pay Spencer isn’t going to get a QB-seeking missile as since the 2009 season when he managed a superb 65 pressures, he hasn’t approached the same–just 37 in 2010 and 50 in 2011. Spencer’s strength has, in fact, been his ability to stop the run, 8.2% of his tackles in 2011 constituted a defensive stop; second of all players at his position.
8 ) Andre Carter, New England Patriots
2011 Grade: +22.4
Key Stat: Recorded 51 total pressures as a DE in 2011 – compared to 26 as an OLB in 2010.
Behind the numbers: Carter rolled back the years in 2011, producing perhaps his best season as a pro and no doubt propelling his name right near the top of a few teams’ wish lists. One can only wonder where New England’s season would have ended up had Carter not succumbed to injury in Week 15; prior to this he had boasted the impressive achievement of at least five pressures in six of his 14 games. Carter has adapted his game somewhat since departing the nation’s capital in 2010. No longer deployed as a pure pass rusher, 2011 was a difficult season for running backs to get anything on him as he ended the campaign with zero missed tackles–the only player in the Top 12 4-3 DEs to achieve this.
9) Israel Idonije, Chicago Bears
2011 Grade: -1.0
Key Stat: Recorded a QB pressure on just 7.9% of pass rushes.
Behind the numbers: All eyes were on Idonije as he entered the 2011 as his 2010 campaign had collapsed badly towards the end; in his final four games that season he managed just six QB disruptions, compared to 35 in his previous 10 games. Sadly, this form appeared to roll over into the new season, as Idonije continually failed to make a nuisance of himself for opposing linemen. Some of this has to fall on how the Bears used him; playing 944 snaps in an every-down role appeared to be too much. But if a team is willing to rest Idonije and take him off the field on obvious passing situations, he could be a very solid pickup.
10) Mark Anderson, New England Patriots
2011 Grade: +17.8
Key Stat: Achieved more QB pressures (57) in 2011 than in 2009-2010 combined (54).
Behind the numbers: Something of a surprise entrant to complete the list. Many fans, mostly Texans and Bears fans, would have been left head-scratching following the 2011 season, thinking “where did that come from?”. Indeed, it was with those teams that Anderson spent his 2010 and 2009, respectively. Primarily in sub packages and as a pass-rush specialist, he failed to impress or suggest his career would take off in any serious way, yet the magic of Bill Belichick appeared to bring out his very best. Still being deployed in much the same way, he showed an impressive and consistent ability to beat his man and disrupt the quarterback. So impressive, in fact, that even with his relatively low snap count at DE (444), he was the Patriots’ best pass-rushing threat and managed a disruption on an impressive 14.5% of pass rush snaps. His unexceptional history may deter some teams from taking a big interest, but his tremendous impact in 2011 means he deserves serious consideration for a similar or perhaps even greater role.