Five Years of PFF Grades: Top 10 Edge Rushers

To celebrate the first half decade of PFF, Khaled Elsayed ranks the Top 10 pass rushers to have roamed the NFL over the past five years.

| 4 years ago

Five Years of PFF Grades: Top 10 Edge Rushers

It’s been five seasons since PFF opened its doors and tackled the subject of performance-based evaluation in the NFL.

We’ve seen many breathtaking performances, whether it be over a year or in an individual game, but we’ve never really looked back on things in a longer sense. So consider that something we’re rectifying. We’ve added up the grades each player has earned over the past five seasons and then normalized their performance on every snap based on the position they lined up.

It was a more complicated process than that, but you didn’t come here to hear me yap about that. You came to see the Top 10 graded edge rushers of the PFF era.

(Players had to have participated in at least three seasons to qualify)

1. James Harrison, Pittsburgh Steelers (+155)

What pushed Harrison to the top was his ability to do it all. The Steelers’ scheme asked a lot out of him, and more than you’d tend to require from a guy chiefly known as an edge rusher. Yet, not only did he impress dropping into coverage, but he was extremely productive rushing the passer, and a true force in the run game lining up chiefly as the right outside linebacker for the Steelers in each of his five years.

Indeed, if you look at our Pass Rushing Productivity Signature Stats you’ll see that among 3-4 outside linebackers Harrison finished first in 2008, third in 2009, fifth in 2010 and third again in 2011, before his play dropped off in 2012. That’s incredible pass rushing efficiency, and it’s backed up by some fantastic work in the run game where his five-year grade was the third highest of all.

A truly complete player, there hasn’t been another like him over the past five years.

2. DeMarcus Ware, Dallas Cowboys (+154.8)

It’s a given that regardless of how the Cowboys play, DeMarcus Ware is going to wreak havoc. Featuring in the Top 10 for both his pass rushing and run defense (as you can see below), it shouldn’t surprise anyone to hear that Ware has picked up an astonishing 337 combined sacks, hits, and hurries over the past five years.

He’s no friend of quarterbacks, that’s for sure.

In the end, the rating above shows there was very little difference between Ware and Harrison, with Ware losing out because of his tendency to draw those dreaded yellow flags (36 of them). Still, given what he’s produced on the field you can live with that, as the 11th overall pick of the 2005 draft has become a truly dominant player.

3. Cameron Wake, Miami Dolphins (+153.9)

Wake might look back on this ranking and think what might have been. You see, while those above him were starters for five seasons, Wake spent the debut season of PFF in the CFL. Heck, even when he got back into the league in 2009 he saw only 167 (incredibly productive) snaps.

Still, the former BC Lion made up for lost time in 2010 with a breakout year that saw him finish third overall in our 3-4 outside linebacker rankings. A real success story, it wouldn’t have surprised us if that was as good as it got, but year after year Wake has got better and better to the point where he was comfortably our top ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2012, while finishing eighth overall in our Top 101 for the season.

This spot is well earned.

4. Trent Cole, Philadelphia Eagles (+138.5)

Cole was right in contention to be the top dog until a disappointing 2012 saw him finish the year our 22nd ranked 4-3 defensive end. There’s no shame in that, but when you’ve finished first the previous two years, and in the Top 6 in the other, that’s a drop-off.

Though seen as undersized by some, the ability of Cole to get after the quarterback and hunt down running backs has been second to none. His 309 combined sacks, hits, and hurries are impressive over a five-year period, while he’s added 133 defensive stops in the run game for good measure.

A true every-down player, Cole is quite the find for a former fifth rounder.

5. John Abraham, Atlanta Falcons (+124.8)

It will likely come as no surprise that the former Falcon got this nod on the strength of his pass rushing. In fact, his pass rushing grade was better than all others, with Abraham consistently delivering the goods even if Atlanta didn’t have a lot of talent around him.

In recent years he may have had most of his success against some of the weaker tackles around, like a shark sniffing blood in the water, but before that he was as fearsome a pass rusher as there was in the NFL. Back in 2008 he had the highest grade of all defensive ends, and he’s finished in the Top 5 every year since. His work in the run game was never the best, but when you can pick up 289 quarterback disruptions you can live with that.

6. Tamba Hali, Kansas City Chiefs (+111.7)

Hali can thank his phenomenal 2010 for his spot here. Before that he’d never really put things together consistently, and since then he’s struggled to repeat — but 2010 was some year.

Dominating the 3-4 outside linebacker rankings, Hali was a pass rushing menace with a quite outstanding 97 combined sacks, hits, and hurries that remains a PFF record to this date. Like a lot of guys on this list, he’s not the most complete player with his work in the run game less than stellar and him hardly an outside linebacker you’d trust in coverage, but, like guys that have come before him, he’s so good at making life hard for the quarterback he’s well worth this spot.

7. Lamarr Woodley, Pittsburgh Steelers (+96.9)

We’re not overly sure what has happened to Woodley since 2010. In our first three years (2008 – 2010) he was on track to be contending for the top spot, but two sub standard seasons have taken him out of the running.

At his best Woodley is in the mould of James Harrison. Not quite as versatile in coverage, but a dynamic pass rusher who was too powerful in run game to be left one-on-one with tight ends. His high peak was his 2009 year where he finished the season our top ranked 3-4 outside linebacker, and Steelers fans will be hoping he can get back to that soon enough.

8. Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers (+95.4)

Credit to “The Claymaker” for making this list despite not even being in the league when we started up. The 26th overall pick of the 2009 draft, Matthews broke onto the scene with double-digit sack numbers, and has followed that up by developing into one of the most consistent pass rushers around.

Though the Packers don’t provide him with a great deal of pass rushing support, Matthews has constantly delivered the goods, and what’s more, he’s done it while rarely leaving the field and turning into a heck of a run defender. A fine talent.

9. Julius Peppers, Carolina Panthers and Chicago Bears (+95.2)

Before joining the Bears, there were those who questioned whether Peppers was worth the investment. A top talent, he’d finished in the Top 10 of our 4-3 defensive end rankings without ever threatening the Top 5, playing into the idea that he wasn’t the steady force he should be.

Well, the move to Chicago certainly brought the best out of him, as he ended 2010 third overall with significant positive grades in run defense and rushing the passer. A strong 2011 followed, and while he battled injury in 2012 and was less productive than we’ve come to expect, it’s safe to say he’s delivered for Chicago.

10. Terrell Suggs, Baltimore Ravens (+89.7)

It may surprise some, but Suggs hasn’t always delivered rushing the passer, but, as his top ranking against the run would indicate, he’s a force when teams rush.

Before injury in 2012, he’d finished in the Top 3 each year with his work against the run, with his relentless, never-take-a-play-off attitude something to behold. If you rushed in his direction odds were he was going to make you pay for it in some way. He’s added some hefty pass rushing statistics to his work here (with the aid of a lot of pass rushing snaps), but let’s not fool ourselves that it’s anything other than his work against the run that gets him a spot in the Top 10.


Top 10 Pass Rushing

1. John Abraham (+116.3)

2. Cameron Wake (+115.70)

3. DeMarcus Ware (+113.8)

4. Dwight Freeney (+112.8)

5. Tamba Hali (+106.7)

6. Trent Cole (+94.1)

7. James Harrison (+90.3)

8. Chris Clemons (83.1)

9. Charles Johnson (+80.4)

10. Jared Allen (+78.2)


Top 10 Run Defense

1. Terrell Suggs (+88.9)

2. Anthony Spencer (+76)

3. James Harrison (+69)

4. Trent Cole (+61)

5. Jarret Johnson (+54.6)

6. DeMarcus Ware (+53)

7. Lamarr Woodley (+45.1)

8. Matt Roth (+42.9)

9. Calvin Pace (+41.3)

10. Jason Pierre-Paul (+40.1)


Follow Khaled on Twitter: @PFF_Khaled


  • shayaan

    it isn’t a coincidence that 2010 was the only season in the past five that the chiefs had a winning record and an offense worth a damn, allowing them to have leads in most of their games and forcing opposing QBs to throw more often.

  • LightsOut85

    Can you compare the grades of different positions? I just ask because I remember back when y’all had the message board I asked something along the lines of “can you say that a G with higher run-blocking grade than a T is a better run-blocker FOR A GUARD (than the T is FOR A TACKLE)?” and was told it still wasn’t that simple -given how grading & normalizing worked (yet it appears that’s what’s going on here).

    • Khaled Elsayed

      No you can’t compare grades at positions, but with certain positions players are used in a similar enough manner that you can. We’ve deemed for this study that edge rushers can be grouped together, and we went a little bit beyond the normalization on the site to account for the extra detail.

  • braininahat

    So there hasn’t been another player like Harrison in the past five years yet Ware only rated 0.2 points lower? I’m pretty sure Ware is better, but at least be consistent with your inferences given the numbers.