Naturally, we humans love when things fit into neat compartments. Gray area and blurred lines confuse us, and so we usually choose organization over chaos. Rankings offensive football players is easy. Quarterbacks are quarterbacks, running backs are running backs and so on. Things don’t need to be untangled.
But now, we’re doing defensive players. And you really can’t rank football defenders by position. They don’t fit into compartments with easy-to-read labels. You can’t rank the NFL’s best defensive ends, because a 3-4 end has a very different job description (and usually very different strengths) than 4-3 end.
So instead of doing that, we’re starting our defensive positional rankings by giving you the top 10 pass rushers in the league. Only four of the 10 players below are prototypical 4-3 ends, and with Houston switching to a 3-4 defense next year, that number will shrink to three. The others are technically outside linebackers.
Going forward, we’ll give you the league’s best “run stoppers” (3-4 d-linemen, 4-3 tackles) and “field generals” (inside linebackers) before regaining a sense of normalcy with the top 10 cornerbacks and safeties.
Before we begin, I just want to say that this has been one of the most difficult processes I’ve undergone (it’s been a pampered life). I re-arranged this list on dozens of occasions, finally settling on the 10 names below. That said, about a dozen other players felt worthy of making the cut. In light of that, I’d like to toss a slew of honorable mentions out there right here and now: Julius Peppers, Ray Edwards, Charles Johnson, Justin Tuck, James Harrison, John Abraham, Robert Mathis, Chris Long, Osi Umenyiora, Cullen Jenkins, Shaun Phillips, Elvis Dumervil, my mom, my dad, and my lord and savior, Jesus Christ. I hope I’m not forgetting anybody.
1. DeMarcus Ware, Dallas Cowboys
There’s little doubt about this one. The outside linebacker (although he has a hand in the dirt the vast majority of the time) has led the league in sacks two of the last three seasons.
2. Cameron Wake, Miami Dolphins
Another 3-4 outside linebacker who never drops back into coverage, the former CFL star broke out as a pure pass rusher in 2010. He’s got himself 19.5 sacks in only 17 career starts.
3. Jared Allen, Minnesota Vikings
After recording just a single sack in his first seven games, the three-time All-Pro was lights-out in the second half of the season. He still managed to crack the top 10 in sacks with 11, hitting the double digits for the fourth season in a row.
4. Trent Cole, Philadelphia Eagles
I can’t believe how rarely Cole is mentioned with the players surrounding him on this list. The guy is consistently one of the most dangerous 4-3 ends in the game. He’s a machine who rarely gets hurt, rarely has an off game and brings constant heat. Over the last five years, only Ware and Allen have more sacks than Cole.
5. Dwight Freeney, Indianapolis Colts
This is where statistics have to be thrown out the window. I understand that Freeney has failed to lead his own team in sacks five of the last six years, but I don’t care. Robert Mathis only has similar career sack numbers because Freeney is such a force on the other side.
6. Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers
Had Matthews finished the year as strongly as he started it, his 2010 numbers might have given him a chance to challenge Ware for the top spot. But the sophomore dealt with injuries down the stretch, and his productivity dropped way off. If he can stay healthy in 2011, he’ll climb.
7. Tamba Hali, Kansas City Chiefs
The guy’s still under the radar, which might be somewhat justified considering his inability to do anything besides rush the passer. But only Ware had more sacks than Hali in 2010. In fact, the 27-year-old might have been the most disruptive edge rusher in the league last year.
8. LaMarr Woodley, Pittsburgh Steelers
It’s hard to consider sack numbers when looking at the merits of Woodley and/or James Harrison, but both are phenomenal. Harrison might be a slightly better all-around player, but I think Woodley is the better pass rusher. He’s mustered double-digit sack numbers in three straight seasons, and still hasn’t reached his prime.
9. Terrell Suggs, Baltimore Ravens
Some might call him slightly inconsistent, but look closely and it’s clear that he rises to big occasions. The five sacks he had in two Baltimore playoff games are what get him on this list.
10. Mario Williams, Houston Texans
Imagine Williams with a complementary end like Mathis or Ray Edwards. He’d be putting up massive numbers. Instead, he’s been a victim of Houston’s bad defense for much of his career. Still, the former top pick has managed at least nine sacks in four straight seasons.