Rather than go with another offensive position group this week, I’m going to give the defense some love. Specifically, we’re going to examine the top 10 edge rushers in advance of the 2022 season. Defensive ends don’t need to be appreciated by me; their teams know their value, as evidenced by DEs/OLBs possessing the highest average salaries after QBs (and perhaps a few WRs). The rankings below are my opinions only, and as usual, changes are possible at a later time. This group is ridiculously deep, as I had to leave off players such as Khalil Mack (due to injury) and Maxx Crosby (simply no space with such incredible talent). Note: this list contains players who primarily line up at the DE and OLB spots, as those positions have become largely interchangeable. DTs will have their own article soon. Also, despite his sack production, Micah Parsons actually played more at a traditional LB spot, so you’ll certainly see him in that article.
1. TJ Watt, Steelers
Why is Watt in the top spot? Probably because of that whole “tying Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record” thing. Despite having a 17th game in which to compile stats, 22.5 sacks in one year is extremely impressive. His relentless motor is what’s always gotten the job done. He fights to the finish on every play, as evidenced by his 22 career forced fumbles. Watt also plays strong run defense, making 64 tackles in 2021. I could go on about his pass rushing prowess by pointing out facts like “he had 13 sacks in 2018 but has increased his total in each season since”, but that doesn’t do him justice. The completeness of his game is what makes him the best defensive PLAYER at any position in the NFL.
2. Myles Garrett, Browns
When Myles Garrett was selected #1 overall in 2017, we all knew why: he had the length to bend around the edge, the speed to close, and the power to burst through the line. He was expected to be an elite pass rusher, and he has certainly delivered. Garrett has attained double-digit stats in each season since 2018, and that includes 2019, when he was suspended for part of the season for ripping QB Mason Rudolph’s helmet off and swinging it at him. His gifts extend beyond his own skill; he makes jobs easier for players around him. It’s no coincidence that after a 0-sack season, Jadeveon Clowney rebounded with 9 after joining Cleveland. He succeeded because Garrett was wreaking havoc on the other side of the line, which is how you know you’ve got a transcendent player.
3. Shaquil Barrett, Buccaneers
Think Denver wants this one back? After never reaching 6 sacks as a Bronco, Barrett blew up in 2019 with the Buccaneers, amassing 19.5 sacks with his new team. He’s regressed back to the mean a bit statistically with 18 sacks over the past two seasons (still higher than any single-season total as a Bronco), but that doesn’t tell the whole story. His pressure rate has been consistently in the top 10 since signing with Tampa, and he’s a plus run defender. Tampa was wise to franchise tag Barrett in 2020 to make sure the season they had just witnessed wasn’t a mirage, but he has continued to produce and is proving well worth his $17M/year contract.
4. Cameron Jordan, Saints
No player on this list has been as consistent as Jordan over a longer period of time. Since 2012, he has reached or exceeded 7.5 sacks every single year. He is third among active players with 107 career QB takedowns. This isn’t even a lifetime achievement ranking, as he’s been stellar as recently as 2021, when he had 12.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles. Jordan is probably also the best run defender on this list; he’s one of the biggest reasons why no team allowed less than New Orleans’ 3.7 yards per carry last season. Jordan definitely has a future in the broadcast booth, but that will have to wait so long as he is playing at this high a level.
5. Trey Hendrickson, Bengals
Hendrickson started his career by compiling limited stats as a reserve. Though the Saints wanted former first-rounder Marcus Davenport to develop into a star, it was Hendrickson who broke out during his first full season as a starter, totaling 13.5 sacks. Not wanting to break the bank for a possible one-year wonder, New Orleans let the Bengals lure him away with a big-money deal, and his encore and 2021 put to bed any idea of his 2020 season being a fluke. As the undisputed #1 DE for Cincinnati, Hendrickson set a new career high with 14 sacks, but the way he did it was even more impressive. Without a guy like Cam Jordan on the field with him, Hendrickson had to create his own opportunities, and he occasionally took over games. He could actually get better in his 3rd season as a true starter.
6. Nick Bosa, 49ers
Bosa would probably rank higher on this list if it weren’t for injury woes. His 2020 season was almost completely wiped out by a torn ACL, which was a shame because he had a great rookie season (9 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FF). Upon returning in 2021, Bosa wiped out the memory of his injury, becoming a dominant force on the San Francisco line. He did this while lining up against veteran stalwarts at left tackle such as Duane Brown and Andrew Whitworth. Racking up 15.5 sacks and 4 forced fumbles in 2021, Bosa showed the league why he was the #2 pick in 2019…and why that was probably still too low a slot for him to go based on the benefit of hindsight.
7. Chandler Jones, Raiders
You were probably looking for Maxx Crosby here if you were Raider searching. He nearly cracked this list, but it’s his new teammate that I see being the dominant force in Las Vegas’s front seven. Jones is somewhat of a forgotten man in the league due to his age (32) and his 2020 season being lost to a torn bicep. However, GMs did not forget what he did before and after that injury. Excluding that 2020 season, Jones had surpassed 10 sacks in every year since 2015, with of totals of 19 and 10.5 in 2019 and 2021, respectively. In those two particular years, he amassed 14(!) forced fumbles. Now that he’s another year away from that injury, I expect him to be even better than he’s been in the past 2 seasons, especially with Crosby drawing attention like nobody in Arizona ever did.
8. Robert Quinn, Bears
Quinn is a very interesting case. He has 5 seasons with double-digit sacks and another 5 seasons with less than 7. So why is he ranked here in spite of this inconsistency? Because the numbers are a bit deceptive. His 2020 season, his first with Chicago, was undoubtedly his worst, but aside from that, he’s lived in the top 5 of the QB pressure rankings almost every year. Even in 2020, his 2 sacks were the fewest of any player with a 12% or greater pressure rate in NFL history. That tells me that Quinn may have simply experienced some horrid luck. More proof: a pass rusher who “declines” that much doesn’t normally get better in his age-31 season, but that’s exactly what Quinn did. He amassed 18.5 sacks in 2021, setting a new career high, but he had exactly the same amount of QB hits (22) as he did in 2019 when he had 11.5 sacks. His pass rushing is probably best described by a regular 10-sack a season stat line, which is very strong production over a lengthy career.
9. Von Miller, Bills
Miller is another player who has seemingly fallen a bit off the radar while languishing on Broncos teams with awful QB play. He had his first single-digit sack season since 2013 in 2019, and he tore his ACL before playing a single game in 2020. 2021 was a far better experience for Miller, as he reached 9.5 sacks and a whopping 19 tackles for loss. He showed that his run defense was still exceptional (better than that of anyone on this list except Cam Jordan), and after adding 4 sacks in the Rams’ Super Bowl run, he demonstrated that he had more juice in his legs than he did in the prior two seasons. Buffalo promptly offered Miller a $120M contract, proving that they too believe that Miller still has great football left in him.
10. Joey Bosa, Chargers
One list, two Bosas! Joey has been overshadowed a bit by his brother Nick since the latter came into the league in 2019, but they’re actually really similar players. Joey’s injury history is just a little bit worse; in his 6 pro seasons, he has missed 5 or more games in 3 of them. The best ability is availability, so I had to rank Nick ahead since he only had one (potentially freaky) injury. When he’s on the field, the elder Bosa is a stud. This has been true from the start: Bosa totaled 10.5 sacks during a rookie season in which he only started 11 games. He has topped 10 sacks in 3 other years, but his most recent season is likely his best. On top of his 11.5 sacks, Bosa also forced a career-high 7 fumbles and made 51 tackles, showing that he has become more stout in the run game. Alongside the excellent Khalil Mack, Bosa could have even better opportunities to produce in 2022.