News & Analysis

Ranking the NFL's 15 best edge rushers in the 2016 season

By Sam Monson
Feb 10, 2017

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OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 04: Khalil Mack #52 of the Oakland Raiders celebrates after a fumble recovery against the Buffalo Bills during their NFL game at Oakland Alameda Coliseum on December 4, 2016 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Pass rushing is one of the most important facets of the game. Pressuring the quarterback is arguably the best way of preventing big plays in the passing game, and getting home for a sack has a huge impact on any given drive.

Pass-rushers are amongst the league’s best-paid players, and with the offseason getting into full swing, everybody will be chasing them in free agency and the draft.

So, let’s take a look at how PFF ranked the best edge rushers in the 2016 season. It’s worth preparing yourself for the fact that this list will feature prominently some players that did not have a lot of sacks, and omit others entirely that were among the league leaders in that area.

Sacks are important, but they represent an extremely small percentage of passing plays. Simply applying pressure to quarterbacks this past season dropped their passer rating from 96.7 to just 62.5 (league-wide averages), or the equivalent of turning Derek Carr into Jared Goff. Players that generate a lot of pressure are having a huge impact on the game, whether they get home or not, and those that generate comparatively little pressure won’t necessarily be saved by a high sack total.

1. Khalil Mack, Oakland Raiders

Nobody generated more pressure than Oakland’s Khalil Mack this past season. He led the NFL in total pressures, at 96, and was the only player to even eclipse 90 over the year. Mack didn’t have as many sacks as some on the list, but still got home 11 times over the year, knocking the QB down another 11 times, and posting a monstrous 74 hurries across his 16 games.

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Mack’s postseason performance against the Texans was one of his weakest pass-rushing displays of the year, but he still notched a pair of hurries and was a monster in the run game, with eight defensive stops to his name in just one game.

What often separates the very best pass-rushers is game-defining impact plays, and Mack had more than one of those over the season. In fact, he recorded more than one of those in a single game, proving to be the difference between the Raiders winning or losing back in Week 12 against the Panthers, when he managed to intercept Carolina QB Cam Newton on a quick screen pass, and later record a strip-sack to force a fumble and seal the win.

2. Brandon Graham, Philadelphia Eagles

Brandon Graham only notched six sacks in 2016, but he recorded so much pressure that it really shouldn’t be used as a reason to ignore his dominance. Graham had 83 total pressures over the season, third-most in the NFL, and much of that pressure had a major impact on the opposing quarterback, even if he didn’t end the play then and there with a sack. Graham generated pressure once every 5.8 pass-rushing snaps, which is the second-best figure in the league behind Mack, and you can point to multiple games over the season where his pressure led to poor QB performances. In Week 16, Graham didn’t get a sack on Giants QB Eli Manning, but he knocked him to the ground four times and hurried him another five. Manning’s passer rating for the game was just 61.3, and a dismal 10.7 when pressured. Sometimes pass rush is about more than sacks.

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3. Von Miller, Denver Broncos

Von Miller picked up this year where he left off a season ago, and any concerns that he would ease off having earned his monster new contract were quickly assuaged. Miller ended the 2016 season with 79 total pressures, 14 of which were sacks, and few players are as difficult to prevent from generating quick pressure as he is. What’s actually most remarkable about his season is how good he was against the run, which is often overlooked as a strength of his. He may not attack the run game the same way as some bigger edge defenders, but he still creates a notable impact on it by using his quickness and agility to defeat blocks.

4. Cameron Jordan, New Orleans Saints

Another player that doesn’t quite get the recognition they deserve because the sack totals aren’t there, Cameron Jordan posted the same 79 total QB pressures as Von Miller did, but only nine of them were sacks, compared to Miller’s 14. Jordan actually had a slow start to the 2016 season, but after three fairly mediocre games to open the year, he went on a tear that few players could hold a candle to. Over the final 13 games, he notched 73 total pressures, or 5.6 per game, though he did face an unusually soft schedule of offensive tackles.

5. Joey Bosa, San Diego Chargers

The sky is evidently the limit for Joey Bosa, because once he finally got on the field for the Chargers after a lengthy contract holdout and then injury, he set about generating pressure and hurrying the quarterback at a rate we haven’t seen from a player in their debut season over the past decade. Bosa ended the season with 59 total pressures, despite only playing 12 games (the first of which he saw only 27 snaps as the team eased him onto the field). Bosa played both defensive end and outside linebacker for San Diego, and on the left and right side of the line, generating pressure in every game he played and recording at least one sack in his final six-straight games.

6. Cameron Wake, Miami Dolphins

Cameron Wake’s season was one of the most impressive from any player in the NFL given his return from an Achilles injury. There may be no worse injury for an edge rusher that relies on explosion and burst off the line, and the Dolphins started the season with Wake merely a situational pass-rusher to ease him back. By Week 6, however, Wake had forced them to put him back in the starting lineup, dominating as a rusher all season. He notched 12 sacks in a 10-game stretch beginning with his first game back as starter, and ended the year with 66 total QB pressures and 13 sacks, notching pressure of some form in every game he played in.

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7. Melvin Ingram, San Diego Chargers

It wasn’t long ago that Melvin Ingram was seen as a first-round draft disappointment, but he has developed into the player that the Chargers thought he could be—it just took him the duration of his rookie contract. Ingram only had eight sacks this season, but posted 72 total pressures and had multiple pressures in every single game of the season. In seven games, he had at least five total pressures, and was also markedly improved against the run this season.

8. Whitney Mercilus, Houston Texans

Whitney Mercilus is a lot like Ingram in terms of slowly developing into the first-round edge rusher the team thought he could be, but just taking a little more time to do so than expected. Mercilus posted his second consecutive double-digit sack season, and ended 2016 with 76 total QB pressures. Unlike some others on the list, he also got to experience a pair of playoff games, and averaged six total QB pressures across those two games, notching three sacks. Mercilus has become a dominant player in his own right after spending his time in the Shadow of J.J. Watt in Houston.

9. Jadeveon Clowney, Houston Texans

Jadeveon Clowney was supposed to be an instant dominant force because of his physical gifts, but his pro career started slowly due to injuries as much as anything else. Over the past two seasons, though, he has had a clearer run of things, and ended this season in the best run of form of his NFL career. Clowney didn’t have as much total pressure as other players on this list, but by the end of the season he was taking over games, and was the best player on the field in Houston’s first playoff game against the Raiders, where his interception was one of several key plays that swung the game. Clowney’s 2017 could be even better than his 2016 season, which was still good enough to rank in the top 10.

10. Chandler Jones, Arizona Cardinals

Chandler Jones was one of the best pickups of the previous offseason, as the Cardinals capitalized on his off-field concerns in New England to acquire one of the better pass-rushers in the league. Jones racked up 66 total pressures over the season, and teamed with Calais Campbell inside and Markus Golden on the other side to suddenly give the Cardinals one of the league’s most formidable pass-rushing defensive fronts in the game. Jones opened the season with a sack in four straight games, and though he cooled down over the middle third of the year, he ended with two sacks in both of his final games.

11. James Harrison, Pittsburgh Steelers

The play of James Harrison at age 38 is one of the stories of the season. The Steelers have been trying to replace Harrison for years, but he remains clearly their best edge rusher and outside linebacker. It took the team until Week 11 to finally hand him the starting spot that he had been earning all season, and from that point, on he had seven sacks in nine games including the playoffs, and 35 total pressures (3.9 per game). In the playoffs, he seemed to get even better, and destroyed the Miami Dolphins in particular before having solid games against both the Chiefs and Patriots.

12. Michael Bennett, Seattle Seahawks

At his best, Michael Bennett belongs far higher on this list, but this season he wasn’t quite the pass-rushing force he has been in recent years, even if his run defense remained as strong as ever. Bennett, in fact, is actually testing the definition of edge rusher entirely now, as he spends almost an exactly equal number of snaps playing inside on the Seahawks’ line, where he can use his quickness and strength to beat slower guards into the backfield. He ended the season with 43 total QB pressures, but only played in 11 regular season games because of injury.

13. Olivier Vernon, New York Giants

Olivier Vernon was made to work to earn that blockbuster contract the Giants handed him in the offseason. No edge rusher played as many snaps as Vernon in the 2016 season (1,041 during the regular season). If you include the playoffs, he was on the field for 1,112 snaps, or 88 more than the next player, and was one of just three edge rushers to see more than 1,000 snaps across regular and postseason play. Vernon recorded 10 sacks, but 86 total pressures, second in the league behind only Khalil Mack, and could possibly have done even better if the Giants had given him the kind of in-game breathers most other edge rushers get.

14. Jason Pierre-Paul, New York Giants

Like his teammate, Jason Pierre-Paul didn’t get much time off during games, and actually played more snaps than many 16-game starters, despite going down midway through his 12th game of the season against the Steelers. JPP amassed 54 total QB pressures in those 11.5 games over the season, and was also second in the league in batting passes down at the line when he couldn’t get pressure on the play—again, despite missing four and a half games due to injury.

15. Carlos Dunlap, Cincinnati Bengals

The only player to outdo Jason Pierre-Paul in passes batted at the line was the 6-foot-6 Carlos Dunlap. He managed to swat down a J.J. Watt-esque 13 passes at the line, while also recording 67 total QB pressures on his pass-rushing snaps. Dunlap recorded pressure in every game this season, and more than one total pressure in every game except one.

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