In today’s NFL, offense rules the game. Defenders have never had a tougher job stopping opposing teams from marching down the field as rule changes and continuous offensive evolution make their lives overwhelmingly difficult.
As a result, having an elite pass rush has never been more advantageous. It benefits the defense on every level when their teammates can consistently get pressure on an opposing QB and make his life miserable, forcing bad throws and quick decisions. An elite presence on the defensive line can throw a wrench into an opponent’s entire gameplan and mentality.
In that spirit, here are the ten best pass-rushers in the NFL heading into 2019.
10. Danielle Hunter, Minnesota Vikings
Danielle Hunter had his best year as a pro in 2018 with 14.5 sacks, good for fifth in the league. The fourth-year defensive end out of LSU uses an unholy combination of size and quickness to terrorize the various QBs of the NFC North. He has a ways to go as far as consistency goes, however; despite his spot as an NFL sack artist, he had only 19 QB hits outside of those sacks.
When Hunter was on, he was on. But it was a little too easy to take him out of the game at times. Hunter could quickly make his way up this list with a more varied arsenal of pass-rush moves next year, but for now, he’s a one-trick pony who doesn’t affect the game when he’s not getting sacks.
9. Yannick Ngakoue, Jacksonville Jaguars
Many believed Yannick Ngakoue was one of the league’s next great pass rushers after he played a pivotal role in Jacksonville’s dominant defensive season in 2017. He fell off a bit in 2018 though, posting only nine-and-a-half sacks and suffered from the regression that hit every aspect of the Jaguars.
He was still a constant presence in opponents’ backfields despite the low sack total, which merits his spot on this list. He was third in the league with 33 QB hits, and at only 24, will likely be a regular presence on rankings such as these.
8. Dee Ford, San Francisco 49ers
One of the few bright spots on Kansas City’s defense last year, Dee Ford was top 10 in the league in both sacks and QB hits. He earned 13 sacks and 29 QB hits during a high-quality contract year that earned him a nine-digit contract in San Francisco this past offseason.
Ford is quick off the edge and utilizes a variety of moves and counters to make his presence known in opposing backfields. Ford may never post a better statistical season, but there’s something to be said about the consistency he showed last season, and the Niners clearly agreed.
7. Myles Garrett, Cleveland Browns
The 2017 No. 1 overall pick built upon his solid rookie year as a sophomore. Myles Garrett racked up 13.5 sacks and 29 QB hits despite apparently being told by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams that he should only use two moves while rushing the passer. He’s a ridiculous athlete, quicker than most offensive linemen and as strong as any player in the league.
Similar to Hunter, Garrett must find week-to-week consistency to become the fully-realized threat that he can become. The anticipation is high for Garrett, who should put up bigger numbers this year without the handcuffs Williams put on him.
6. Fletcher Cox, Philadelphia Eagles
If it weren’t for the existence of Aaron Donald, we’d consider Fletcher Cox the most disruptive interior defender in the league. The massive defensive tackle posted 10.5 sacks and a scary 34 QB hits for the Eagles last year. He demands double teams on just about every snap, and is inclined to blow up a play at any given moment.
It was by far the best year of his career, a gameplan-altering presence who dominated the line of scrimmage week in and week out. Cox may not reach these heights again, but he remains a player that opposing offenses must pay very close attention to, lest he ruin their day.
5. Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs
Lost in the whirlwind of the Patrick Mahomes explosion and massive point totals put up on the defense was the career year out of Chris Jones. Jones notched 15.5 sacks and 29 QB hits as the only good player on the interior of the Chiefs’ line. He’s quick off the line and knows how to utilize angles and counters to keep guards and centers off balance as he collapses the pocket on a regular basis.
With no Ford, it might be reasonable to expect less gaudy numbers out of Jones, but they did add Frank Clark. Jones should only be getting started after earning his inaugural All-Pro selection last year.
4. J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
After several years of surgery sapped his explosiveness, J.J. Watt is no longer the bringer of doom he was at the height of his powers a half-decade ago. But 2018 was as close to a return to form as we’ll see. He put up 16 sacks with 25 QB hits despite receiving the regular doses of double-teams and combo blocks a man of his reputation deserves.
While he may not be quite as dominant as he was pre-surgery, Watt is still a game-wrecker who will live in your backfield if not given enough respect, and a top-five pass rusher in the league.
3. Von Miller, Denver Broncos
He may be several years older than when he led the Broncos to a Super Bowl title, but Von Miller remains one of the scariest sights an offensive lineman can see across from him. He put up 14.5 sacks and 26 QB hits in what the rest of the NFL would consider a “down” year for the star rusher– which should speak volumes about how good he’s been and how good he is. Nobody has a quicker first step off the line, and it’s downright unnatural how he can contort his body to get around the rather lengthy arms of the various offensive tackles he’ll line up against.
Then there’s the fact that Vic Fangio, architect of the monstrous year Khalil Mack had in Chicago, is now his head coach, and his running mate in Bradley Chubb will grow only more dangerous after a 13-sack rookie season. Miller may be at the top of all leaderboards by season’s end this year.
2. Khalil Mack, Chicago Bears
There are few players in the league who can change the game like Khalil Mack. He went on a warpath after the Oakland Raiders traded him because they didn’t want to pay him and put up 12.5 sacks, 18 QB hits, and forced an absurd six fumbles in only 12 games. He treated offensive tackles, who generally come in at around six-and-a-half feet and over 300 pounds, like rag dolls week in and week out.
Defensive highlights that don’t include a sack, big hit, or interception rarely go viral, yet Mack’s sheer dominance made him a Twitter celebrity and must-watch viewing every week. Only a handful of defensive players in NFL history have captured imaginations like the way Mack did in 2018, and if he can stay healthy, will be one of the best overall players across the league, much less among pass-rushers.
1. Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams
Still, no one can come close to the most dominant player in football, and my personal top overall NFL player. Aaron Donald has been an absolute wrecking ball in the middle of the Rams’ defense since his first down as an NFL player, and he’s only gotten better. He led the league in both sacks and QB hits last season with 20.5 and 41, respectively. He popped off the screen every down, obliterating interior linemen with an unmatched combination of strength, speed, and agility.
He won his second consecutive Defensive Player of the Year award, and had a legitimate argument for MVP despite Mahomes torching every field he step foot on. A defensive tackle has to be very, very good to even merit consideration as the best player in football, and Donald is even better than that. It says a lot about any player when you see 20.5 sacks and consider it well within the realm of possibility that he can eclipse that number. Donald is the best pass-rusher in the league, and one of the greatest to play his position with some of his best years still ahead of him.