Welcome back to the NFL PRR! In this series, leading up to the 2021 NFL Draft, I will be ranking the top 12 players at each position for the previous season. This is not where I believe they will rank at the end of 2021, just where they stand now. Because of this, incoming rookies will be exempt from the "Following the 2020 Season" blogs. After the draft, leading up to the 2021 NFL season, I will be ranking where I believe each player will rank after the 2021 season, including incoming rookies.
These lists will be controversial, they will raise some eyebrows, but, most importantly, they will open some eyes towards who is actually dominating in the NFL today. Without further ado, here are my top 12 edge defenders for the 2020 season:
Photo: The Athletic
12. Carl Lawson - Cincinnati Bengals
If you're wondering who this guy is, don't worry, you're not alone. The 25 year old defensive end has quietly disrupted passing attacks over the past several seasons, and 2020 was no exception. 5.5 sacks is nothing to write home about, but his pressure rate is pretty insane. On 437 pass rush snaps, Lawson generated 44 total pressures, for a pressure rate of 10.1%. For reference, Za'Darius Smith, who tied for the 4th most sacks in 2020 with 12.5, generated a pressure rate of only 6.4%. This is even more impressive when you consider Lawson only started 11 games. Lawson enters free agency with a low price tag, and teams could end up getting a huge bargain out of him if he can generate more sacks with that same pressure rate.
11. Montez Sweat - Washington Football Team
Montez Sweat took a major step in his sophomore season. His incredible strength and speed were on full display as he tallied 9 sacks and 14 TFLs, along with 6 pass deflections, 1 INT, 2 forced fumbles, and 31 total pressures (9.1% pressure rate). Some of his impact wont show up on a stat sheet, however. His ability to close gaps and chase down plays from behind is poetry in motion. Pairing him up with Chase Young is gonna prove to be one of the scariest pass rushing attacks in the league for years to come.
10. Romeo Okwara - Detroit Lions
Another name that many people might not know, Romeo played great on all levels. On a Lions defense that struggled all year, he was the one bright spot as he sacked the opposing QB 10 times, while getting 14 TFLs, forcing 3 fumbles and creating 31 pressures. Given he only started 9 games this year, he is another free agent looking to make a big impact as a 16 game starter next season. Although he never had one big individual game, he played even keel all season long and was always a point of emphasis for opposing offensive lines.
Photo: Bleacher Report
9. Chase Young - Washington Football Team
What can't you say about this guy? The DROY made incredible plays in 2020. 7.5 sacks and 13 TFLs is pretty solid for a rookie, and adding 4 pass deflections, 4 FFs, and 24 total pressures shows he makes plays when he gets to the QB. His 4.8% pressure rate leaves something to be desired, but his impact on the edge is something you won't find on a stat sheet, similar to his teammate Montez Sweat.
8. Brian Burns - Carolina Panthers
Coming off a strong rookie campaign, Burns improved every game and made himself into a household name. 9 sacks, 12 TFLs, 4 pass deflections, 3 FFs, and 37 total pressures (8.9% pressure rate) are great numbers to post in his second season. This is even more impressive when you consider there are no other real pass rushing threats along that Panther defense. Burns may put himself into the All-Pro conversation next year, maybe even a potential DPOY candidate.
7. Trey Hendrickson - New Orleans Saints
It pains me to put Trey this low, but putting him at #7 is something no one would expect at the beginning of the year. Trey tallied 13.5 sacks, tied for second most in the league, while getting pressures on 8.6% of snaps. Add 14 TFLs, that's a very solid season for a lesser known defensive player in the NFL. The one caveat about Hendrickson is that he has incredible talent around him. Cameron Jordan, Marcus Davenport, David Onyemata, Sheldon Rankins, and others along the defensive front gave him more favorable matchups on pass rushes. Either way, 13.5 sacks is an incredible season total, and will bode him well in his first round of free agency.
6. Khalil Mack - Chicago Bears
I feel like some people have forgotten about Khalil Mack when you consider the top pass rushers in the game. According to PFF, Mack was the best edge defender in 2020 with a 92 overall grade. 9 sacks, 31 pressures, 15 TFLs, and multiple linemen put in the dirt, it's clear to see that Mack is still a threat and could easily be considered the best edge defender in the NFL.
5. Shaquil Barrett - Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Shaq Barrett is so good. The sack leader a year ago saw a decrease in sack numbers, but still dominated in generating pressures. With 8 sacks, 42 pressures, and 13 TFLs, he showed he can be effective against the run and pass. He also played the second most pass rush snaps out of any defender, trailing only his teammate Jason Pierre-Paul. The pending free agent looks to find a new home, or continue to shine in Tampa Bay.
Photo: Associated Press
4. Za'Darius Smith - Green Bay Packers
Although I pointed him out for his low pressure rate earlier, there's no denying that Za'Darius Smith is the heart and soul of the Packers defense and is one of the best edge threats in the league. 12.5 sacks, 17 TFLs, and 39 total pressures are stellar numbers, especially for a Packers defense that struggled early on. Since arriving in Green Bay, he has put himself in the conversations for best edge defenders in the league, and this season was no exception.
3. Myles Garrett - Cleveland Browns
Garrett had a great 2020, and it could have been even better. In just 14 games, Garrett produced 12 sacks, 32 pressures, 15 TFLs, and 4 FFs. The sad part is that most of these numbers were generated in the first half of the season. He could have had a historic year and would have been the best edge rusher of 2020. Despite this, he still made an impact as teams started to double team him and run away from his side. Garrett looks to have a career year in 2021, as he feels like there was still energy left in the tank at the end of the year.
2. Joey Bosa - Los Angeles Chargers
Even though he only played in 12 games and started in 10, Joey Bosa put up some insane numbers this season. On just 350 pass rushing snaps, Bosa tallied 7.5 sacks and 45 pressures, which results in a 12.9% pressure rate!!! That's unbelievable. If he had as many pass rush snaps as Khalil Mack, and maintained the same sack percentage per pressure, Bosa would have 68 pressures and 11.5 sacks. This would have given him the most pressures and the 7th most sacks in 2020. Bosa looks to make a comeback in 2021 where he creates more sacks and re-identifies the Charger defense.
Photo: USA Today
1. TJ Watt - Pittsburgh Steelers
I mean really, who else would even be in consideration for the #1 spot? TJ Watt had an incredible season, posting a league leading 15 sacks, 26 TFLs, 61 pressures, and 7 pass deflections for edge defenders. His pressure rate of 12% was also a key factor towards his dominance this season. He didn't generate as many turnovers as we normally see, but he made it up for his improvement in pass rushing prowess. There's not much else to say, TJ Watt was the best edge defender for the 2020 season.
Photo: Pittsburgh Steelers
Sources: Pro Football Focus, Pro Football Reference
I chose not to include Haason Reddick because most of his stats accrued over the final five games where he was either playing against backups or subpar starters. If he can repeat that production over the course of a season, he would immediately jump to the top 3. That's not to say he's a bad pass rusher, but given his first 3 seasons and most of his 4th season were mediocre, it would be silly for me to include him on this list.
Some other guys who had solid stats were JPP and Leonard Floyd, but they didn't have the pressure rate or run stopping numbers to put them in the top 12. Both had great seasons and will look to improve in 2020. In addition, 4 out of the 12 names above are free agents for the 2021 offseason. Finding new homes may allow some of these guys to perform even better than they did this previous season.
Join me next time as I cover the top 12 offensive linemen in 2020!