In preparation for NFL training camps kicking off, we at Full Press Coverage will preview 10 of the most notable players at each position around the league. In these groupings, we will examine the three best (The Now), four who are ready for the next step (The Next) and three who have to show some sign of life in 2019 (The Needy). Next up, edge defenders.
If there is someone on here who seems like an egregious omission, check in later when we do interior linemen. 3-4 ends are going to fall into that category.
1. Khalil Mack, Bears
Mack’s arrival in Chicago essentially altered the entire makeup of the NFC. He signaled the changing of the guard with big play after big play week one, and the Bears defense did not look back after that. Even battling injuries throughout the season, Mack was the focal point of one of the best play-making defenses in recent years.
There is plenty of room for debate between Mack and Von Miller as to who deserves best edge honors. As far as pass rush efficiency and game-breaking ability, Miller and Mack are remarkably similar. They have the exact same number of sacks since 2015 (49), almost identical forced fumble numbers (13 and 14, respectively) and both consistently log at least 60 pressures every year. Miller has a bit of an edge in quarterback hits, but Mack has a significant edge in run defense, hence the reason he takes the top spot over Miller.
Mack’s versatility as a pass rushing linebacker goes well behind his ability to speed rush. He translates speed to power unlike anyone, can manhandle huge tackles and power through chips and double teams. As such, while Miller typically lines up in a wide-five or wide-nine-technique, Mack will consistently go head-up on tight ends or shade inside over the tackle and put his hand in the ground. His ability to dominate every facet from every position puts him at a level that no edge can match right now.
2. Von Miller, Broncos
Miller is the league’s quintessential speed rush machine, and has been for the better part of a decade. He has double-digit sacks in every full-length season of his career, a Super Bowl MVP and the greatest arsenal of speed counters in the NFL today. He has a pressure rate of 17.1 percent for his entire career, first among all edge players during that time (per Pro Football Focus). No one in the NFL is better at working tackles in space, reading and reacting to punches and countering to get his shots at the quarterback. For anyone looking to build a fast and ferocious defense (as Denver has for eight years), Miller is the guy with whom you start.
3. Cameron Jordan, Saints
Jordan has been in the NFL since 2011, playing at an elite level nearly the whole time and still is somehow one of the most undervalued defensive ends in the game. He has been arguably the best 4-3 end in the NFL the last three seasons, dominating in the run game as well as the pass. Pro Football Focus has him consistently rated among the top run stoppers on the edge, while also ranking second among all edge defenders in pressures since 2016.
And even as he eclipses 30 years old, there are no signs Jordan is slowing down any time soon. Last season, only Myles Garrett had more hurries/knockdowns among 4-3 ends, and no one at his position is Jordan’s equal as a run defender. Like Khalil Mack, he thrives when shading or head-up on the tight end, which gives him a bit more space than a classic 4-3 end five-tech alignment. He is too big and powerful for tight ends, yet has elite athleticism of smaller pass rushers. Jordan is the complete package.
1. Myles Garrett, Browns
Garrett was almost the choice over Cam Jordan for the third “Now” slot, but ultimately he goes here instead. While he has already been a near elite pass rusher and the centerpiece of the ascending Cleveland defense, it is clear he has more gears to access. Garrett may very well be the best 4-3 end before the calendar year is through, as he has already amassed some incredible pass rushing numbers before his 24th birthday. And that was with Gregg Williams reportedly restricting his move set the last two seasons. With a freer environment, another year of development and a non-existent ceiling above him, the time is right for Garrett to reach the very peak of NFL pass rushing.
2. Bradley Chubb, Broncos
Stats-wise, Chubb had one of the most successful rookie pass rushing seasons in recent years. He recorded more pressures than any other rookie in 2018 while also finishing 14th in all of football with 12 sacks. Even in year one, Chubb formed a uniquely dangerous pass rushing duo with Von Miller. That being said, Chubb’s overall production did not totally line up with the high sack numbers. For one, Chubb undeniably benefited from playing opposite Miller, cleaning up sacks when others got initial pressure. In fact, PFF had almost half of his sacks coming on plays where he did not have to win his matchup to finish the play. His pressure numbers were still strong, however, so it stands to reason that his pass rushing will continue to blossom and the sacks will keep coming more organically.
Chubb has a longer way to go as a run defender. He had a strong reputation as a run stopper in college, but for whatever reason, he was not nearly as stout this past season. He also missed a number of tackles (11, most on Denver). Improvement in this area, as well as further development as a pass rusher could move Chubb from “strong number two” for the Broncos to a truly elite edge defender.
3. Preston Smith, Packers
In four seasons, Smith has steadily improved from situational pass rusher to three-down player to solid starter. His 2018 season in which he recorded 53 pressures effectively earned him a sizable contract with the Packers, where he will shoulder much of the pass rushing responsibility. Smith’s development has been gradual, to be sure, and he has yet to show elite potential. That said, he is only 26, has yet to miss a game in his career and by all indications, is not yet a finished product. With a new team and a new set of expectations, 2019 could be the time for Smith to enter a higher echelon.
4. T.J. Watt, Steelers
Because of his Hall of Fame brother, people may have tempered their expectations with T.J. Watt a little too much. Through two seasons, he has proven himself a strong play-maker with 20 sacks and 22 tackles for loss. Last year, he ranked among the league sack leaders for much of the season and ultimately made a Pro Bowl. So what steps are there still for him to take?
The box scores from Watt’s first half show an elite pass rusher. He had eight sacks in the first nine games, after all. However, six of those sacks came in two games. That would not be a bad thing if his pressure numbers kept up, but Watt’s pressure came a lot from schematic advantage. He recorded sacks in bulk, but not consistently. In the second half of the season, however, Watt’s pressure kicked up a notch, from 12.8 percent pressure rate to 20.7 percent. And strangely enough, his sack numbers dipped at the same time. That version of T.J. Watt is not as flashy or enticing as the first half version, but that is more sustainable success. Sacks come and go, but players with consistent pressure are always invaluable. If that iteration of Watt can stick full-time, the Steelers will have themselves a truly elite pass rusher for the future.
1. Leonard Floyd, Bears
Floyd was a top-10 pick, and yet he has not flashed elite potential as a pass rusher. Given his athleticism and his frame, Floyd’s value is going to hinge on his ability to get to the quarterback. He does not bring that consistently at this point in time. His game is still unrefined, relying more on speed and motor than anything else, and his low pressure rate of 11.6 percent since 2016 ranks among the lowest for full-time starters. Granted, Khalil Mack’s high production and the Bears’ overall elite defense has hidden Floyd’s under-performance. But if the pass rushing numbers do not start manifesting themselves, talks of moving him off-ball may kick up.
2. Vic Beasley, Falcons
Unlike the other two in this section, Beasley has flashed. In fact, he flashed for a full season to the tune of 15.5 sacks, a First Team All-Pro and the cog of a Super Bowl defense. But that was two seasons ago. Since that brilliant 2016, Beasley has regressed, and regressed hard. His pressure numbers have slipped, and the Falcons’ defense has slipped in kind. Truth be told, Beasley has become the poster child for sacks not being indicative of future performance. Even in his league-leading 2016 season, Beasley only recorded 45 pressures. 2019 is a contract year for him, and unless he can make the true production match the perceived 2016 production, Beasley could be on his way out.
3. Dante Fowler, Rams
Fowler saved his career by serving as a solid piece of the Rams’ championship run. That said, his half-season flash is really all fans of his have to lean on. Prior to his trade to Los Angeles, Fowler was a major disappointment in Jacksonville, logging average pressure numbers and slipping in the rotation. The Rams rewarded his short run with them with a nice one-year, $12 million deal, allowing him to prove it was not a fluke. Perhaps the change of scenery is all Fowler needed to tap into his potential. Or perhaps that short run of strong play will have been just that: short.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.
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