The defensive players that generally get the most glory are pass rushers and linebackers. Unfortunately this is because they are the only defensive positions that accumulate traditional counting stats; sacks and tackles. That said, edge rushers are among the most valuable defensive players on the field. In the case of 4-3 defenses, the edge rusher is labeled defensive end, while in a 3-4 they are termed outside linebackers. There are some differences in responsibilities between these two positions, but for the most part they represent the same asset; edge disruption. They will generally be matched up against opposing offensive tackles, needing to maintain their position against the run and beat their man when rushing the passer.
Tier 1: Robert Quinn, Von Miller
1. Quinn: I hate to put him this high, but that’s a reflection of just how dominant Quinn was last year against both the run and pass. He totaled 91 pass disruptions, leading the league in hurries (51) and QB hits (21) to go along with a paltry 19 sacks and 7 forced fumbles. Usually when a player is getting lucky, two or three of the above stat categories will be lacking. The fact that Quinn’s numbers are phenomenal across the board says quite a lot. He is a bit of a one year wonder, previously providing a speed rush and not much else. Additionally, he plays with one of the most talented defensive lines in the league. That said, he is only 24, and that talented defensive front just got even deeper; you can continue to expect only good things from Robert Quinn. While I expect the rest of the guys on this list to narrow the gap in 2014, 2013 is the reason he deserves the top spot.
2. Miller: Von had questions surrounding him last season after getting suspended for the first 6 games, but he got back to full speed pretty quickly once he was back on the field. He now has physical questions after tearing his ACL at the end of 2013, and has only played 9 snaps in the preseason thus far. That said, I expect him to return to form this season, which means unique quickness and acceleration for the position of an edge rusher. His burst off the snap and overall athleticism has been unmatched (till perhaps now with Jadeveon Clowney) by anyone in the NFL. He is a special player, and it was obvious from the first snap he played as a Bronco.
Tier 2: Cameron Jordan, Aldon Smith, Robert Mathis, Cameron Wake
3. Jordan: Another guy who was somewhat of an afterthought as a 1st round pick, Jordan was initially playing some interior defensive line. However 2013 saw new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan change up the whole defense, including moving Jordan to the position of an edge rusher. Jordan responded with a career year, notching 12.5 sacks to go along with a whopping 87 pass disruptions. Jordan has unique strength for an edge rusher, making him a daunting challenge for most pass protectors who are used to facing smaller speedier players. Throw in the fact that he’s only 25, and the future is very bright for Jordan.
4. Smith: Aldon Smith had a down 2013 due to off the field issues and a leave of absence. When he was on the field, he looked every bit the part of a budding star who can rush the passer at a high level while stuffing the run as well. His combination of size, strength, acceleration, and past performance make him seem extremely likely to keep improving his game. If he can clean up his life outside of football, the 49’ers should have a blue chip level edge rusher for many years to come.
5. Mathis: Mathis has always been a great two way defensive player, but before last season I doubt many people thought of him quickly when naming the league’s top defensive players. He had always held his own in a 4-3 defense, quietly performing well while his teammate Dwight Freeney soaked up most of the glory with his electric speed rushes. However last year, Chuch Pagano transitioned the Colts defense to a 3-4 alignment, moving Mathis to a stand up edge rushing position. At first I was skeptical of the change, Mathis has been great for a decade at 4-3 DE, why change a good thing? My concerns with Mathis were quickly alleviated in 2013, as he responded with the most dominant season of his career, recording 19.5 sacks and 75 QB disruptions. He is 33 and I am expecting some regression this year, but Mathis has never had a poor season in his career. Considering last season’s performance, I don’t expect that to change in 2014.
6. Wake: It’s hard to believe that Wake is 32 years old, as there is no one in the NFL who can match his speed off the edge. He is a scary opponent for the leagues slower footed offensive tackles, and easily beats the better ones for sacks often enough. He is nothing special against the run, but nobody can eliminate his pass rush, and we all know that is a more valuable asset. He is a unique case when considering his age and that he only came into the league at 27 years old, so it’s hard to project how many more years he can maintain this level of play. That said, he has not yet shown any signs of regression, so I expect him to remain in this tier for 2014.
Tier 3: Jared Allen, Demarcus Ware, Ryan Kerrigan, Tamba Hali, Clay Matthews
This tier is mostly occupied by veteran players who experienced down years. Jared Allen did not light up the stat sheet as much as in years past, Demarcus Ware played on the worst defense of his career, and Matthews had an injury plagued year. That said, these players are all still far too talented to miss this list, and I think there are arguments to put all of them in the above tier; I expect all of them to bounce back with elite play this year. Allen and Ware have looked explosive in preseason and are in better team situations this year. Matthews is only 28 and has displayed enough toughness to expect a return to greatness. Considering they have all had top tier level performances as recent as 2012, I can’t leave them off this list. It’s a shame that Hali doesn’t get as much attention as his peers, as he is every bit as deserving of being on this list. Teammate Justin Houston may get more attention with splashier plays, but make no mistake, Hali is still the better player right now.
Just missed: Greg Hardy, Charles Johnson – I’m still kind of shocked that I left both these guys off the list, especially considering the season the Panthers defensive line just had. I felt that the 7th to 12th best edge rushers in the league were very close together, and I wouldn’t argue against switching up the order of any them. That said, I think the above guys are going to have slightly better seasons.
On the rise: Carlos Dunlap, Chandler Jones, Brian Robison
Hurt but could bounce back: Jason Pierre-Paul