NFL Nation: 2011 Pass-Rushers Power Rankings

NEW ORLEANS -- It shouldn't come as a surprise, but ESPN.com's NFL bloggers ranked the best pass-rushers in the NFL and the Cowboys' DeMarcus Ware came in at No. 1.

Ware led the NFL with 15.5 sacks, but there are some other things he did well that you need to notice.

Ware led the Cowboys with 36 pressures, something coach Jason Garrett looks at when evaluating a pass-rusher. Ware also had the team lead with nine tackles for loss.

One of the things Ware is so good at is catching ball carries from behind, because so many teams run away from him. Ware is able to sneak across the line of scrimmage with his speed to overtake running backs from behind.

The Cowboys' coaches credited Ware with 64 solo tackles for 2010 season, which was fourth on the team, pretty good for a player who gets double-teamed and who sees plays go the opposite way.

New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said he wants to move Ware around the line of scrimmage in 2011. He wants Ware to line up on the left side, then the right side and confuse the offensive line.

"I think sometimes people get too caught up in the statistics of sacks," Garrett said. "He had X number of sacks where he had a good year; he had X number of sacks so he had a bad year. That’s really not the case. There’s more to playing those pressure positions than that: if you’re pressuring the quarterback, if you’re pushing the pocket, if you’re affecting the quarterback. You could be playing equally well and not showing up on the stats sheet quite as much. Can our pressure players besides DeMarcus get better? Absolutely. Can DeMarcus get better? Absolutely, and that’s what we’ll continue to work towards."

Cameron Wake apparently still a sleeper

March, 22, 2011
3/22/11
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Seven weeks ago, I disagreed with the notion some readers supported, that Miami Dolphins outside linebacker Cameron Wake deserved to be considered a legitimate candidate for the Associated Press 2010 Defensive Player of the Year Award.

I don't believe he was a complete enough defender for that prestigious accolade. But the one thing Wake does supremely well is rush the passer.

Even so, Wake barely cracked this week's ESPN.com positional power rankings -- for pass-rushers. We didn't rank players based on run-stuffing or pass-coverage. Just pass-rushing.

Wake didn't get as much respect as I thought he should've.

Wake came in 10th in our power rankings because I rated him fourth. Three panelists didn't put him on their ballots at all. One ranked him ninth. Three ranked him 10th.

For the record, this was my ballot:
  1. DeMarcus Ware, Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker
  2. Tamba Hali, Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker
  3. Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers outside linebacker
  4. Cameron Wake, Miami Dolphins outside linebacker
  5. Jared Allen, Minnesota Vikings defensive end
  6. John Abraham, Atlanta Falcons defensive end
  7. Julius Peppers, Chicago Bears defensive end
  8. Dwight Freeney, Indianapolis Colts defensive end
  9. Terrell Suggs, Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker
  10. Chris Long, St. Louis Rams defensive end

Wake finished third in the NFL with 14 sacks. He was the most dangerous edge rusher in the AFC East by a big margin. Opponents had to game plan to stop him.

While I don't lean too heavily on stats while putting together my weekly positional power rankings, there are a handful of numbers you want to look for when it comes to pass-rushers. Sacks are the NFL's only official stats that are applicable. Other figures such as quarterback hits and hurries must be tracked by analytical outfits such as Football Outsiders.

Football Outsiders charted Wake third in the NFL with 15 quarterback hits (not counting sacks) and fourth with 38 hurries.

What more can you say?

Other divergences on my ballot included rating Freeney lower than any other panelist, omitting both Steelers outside linebackers, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, and being the lone voter to include Long.

The reason Long made my list was because he was always around the quarterback last year. He had a respectable 10 sacks, but he led the NFL with 41.5 hurries and was tied for sixth with 14 QB hits in the Football Outsiders data.

In our third installment of the series, we ranked the pass-rushers, in which Kansas City linebacker Tamba Hali made an impressive showing and Denver’s Elvis Dumervil was ignored.

I found this week’s ranking to be the most difficult of the three positions we have ranked. There are so many terrific pass-rushers in the NFL and going directly off 2010 sack totals, I think, would have been unfair.

That is the exact reason why I think there was an omission from the list. I ranked Dumervil ninth on the list. Dumervil didn’t receive another vote from the rest of the eight-person committee. Dumervil led the NFL in sacks in 2009 with 17. He missed the entire 2010 season when he was put on the injured reserve with a pectoral injury he suffered during training camp. If this voted were conducted a year ago, I’m sure Dumervil would be a top-five pick.

I understand that he shouldn’t be considered a top-five pick now, after missing a season, but that’s why I ranked him ninth. I know Dumervil is moving back to a 4-3 after excelling in a 3-4 in 2009, and he is coming back from a serious injury. But until he proves he’s not a top-10 pass-rusher on the field I think he should be on the list.

In a less-difficult decision, Hali finished fifth. I voted him fifth. I think it's a good spot for Hali, who led the AFC with 14.5 sacks in 2010. He has the look of being one of the NFL’s best pass-rushers for the foreseeable future.

No other AFC West player received a vote. Next week, we’ll rank the tight ends. Fill up the comment section with your top-10 pass-rushers.
Chris Long's increased sack production and overall strong play last season moved him into the periphery of discussions about the NFL's best pass-rushers.

Long was the lone NFC West player to draw a vote in ESPN.com's recently posted power rankings for pass-rushers. Tim Graham of the AFC East ranked Long 10th on his ballot, a reflection of the progress Long continues to make.

"He was always around the ball and led the NFL in quarterback hurries, according to Football Outsiders," Graham said. "He was tied for sixth in quarterback hits. He didn't have the best sack total, but sacks aren't everything."

I agree. Long came close to cracking my top 10, but the players I ranked had generally produced at a higher level over the course of multiple seasons. Projecting their future production seemed more reliable, although Long's current trajectory suggests he'll gain traction in the discussion.

A quick look at my top 10:
  1. DeMarcus Ware, Dallas Cowboys. He was first on seven of our eight ballots.
  2. Dwight Freeney, Indianapolis Colts. The Colts' offense and indoor stadium sometimes give Freeney a huge edge.
  3. Tamba Hali, Kansas City Chiefs. Hali was the most physically dominant pass-rusher I saw last season. He had 14.5 sacks to prove it.
  4. Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers. Made a case for league MVP last season, particularly early.
  5. James Harrison, Pittsburgh Steelers. Bad intentions add to the fear factor.
  6. Jared Allen, Minnesota Vikings. My perception is he has become less consistently dominant, but the bar was set high.
  7. LaMarr Woodley, Pittsburgh Steelers. Thirty-five sacks and six forced fumbles over the last three seasons.
  8. Julius Peppers, Chicago Bears. Peppers would rank higher on a list of best defensive ends. He was probably undervalued here.
  9. John Abraham, Atlanta Falcons. Collected 13 sacks at age 32.
  10. Trent Cole, Philadelphia Eagles. Produces consistently and almost never misses games.

Back to the NFC West: Chris Clemons, Raheem Brock, Justin Smith and James Hall joined Long in causing problems for opposing offenses last season.

Smith had 8.5 sacks, a high number for a 3-4 defensive end.

Was Terrell Suggs snubbed?

March, 22, 2011
3/22/11
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ESPN.com continued its series on positional Power Rankings Tuesday. This week we ranked the top 10 pass-rushers in the NFL.

The AFC North had two players who made the list -- Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebackers James Harrison (No. 6) and LaMarr Woodley (No. 9). But there was one name missing that caught my eye: Baltimore Ravens defensive end/linebacker Terrell Suggs.

I'm not too surprised Suggs didn't make the cut. In my opinion, this was the hardest position to rank thus far, and I strongly considered 14 or 15 players for the top 10.

The definition of a great pass-rusher can vary tremendously. Is it just sacks? Should pressures and hits on the quarterback count? What about players who don't have much help on defense? All of these may or may not factor in with voters on our panel.

Suggs finished No. 12 in ESPN.com's ranking. I voted Suggs No. 8, because he has a lengthy track record of getting to the quarterback, and I believed his production in 2010 (11 sacks) was deserving. He is, in a lot of ways, the only option for Baltimore's defense and faces a lot of double teams. Suggs also plays very well in big games, such as his three sacks in Baltimore's divisional-round playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

With all that said, I find it difficult to consider Suggs a snub. The 10 players who made the list were deserving, and I think our panel did a good job overall in putting together a tough list.

ESPN.com's Pass-Rushing Power Rankings

1. DeMarcus Ware, linebacker, Dallas Cowboys

2. Clay Matthews, linebacker Green Bay Packers

3.Dwight Freeney, defensive end, Indianapolis Colts

4. Jared Allen, defensive end, Minnesota Vikings

5. Tamba Hali, defensive end, Kansas City Chiefs

6. James Harrison, linebacker, Pittsburgh Steelers

7. John Abraham, defensive end, Atlanta Falcons

8. Julius Peppers, defensive end, Chicago Bears

9. LaMarr Woodley, linebacker, Steelers

10. Cameron Wake, linebacker, Miami Dolphins

Walker’s Pass-Rushing Power Rankings

1. DeMarcus Ware, linebacker, Cowboys

2. James Harrison, linebacker, Steelers

3. Dwight Freeney, defensive end, Colts

4. Jared Allen, defensive end, Vikings

5. Clay Matthews, linebacker, Packers

6. John Abraham, defensive end, Falcons

7. LaMarr Woodley, linebacker, Steelers

8. Terrell Suggs, defensive end/linebacker, Ravens

9. Tamba Hali, defensive end, Chiefs

10. Julius Peppers, defensive end, Bears

Do I overrate Dwight Freeney?

March, 22, 2011
3/22/11
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Do I overrate Dwight Freeney?

The seven others who cast votes in ESPN.com’s balloting for the pass-rusher Power Rankings think so.

I ranked the Colts' defensive end first in what I thought was an impossible ballot in which I found 17 players worthy of spots and where I might have leaned a little less on total sack numbers than some of my colleagues. A rusher can certainly be consistently disruptive and dictate a blocking scheme without always notching big sack numbers.

My rationale for Freeney over the Dallas Cowboys' DeMarcus Ware, who got all the other first-place votes?

Here’s what I told NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert, who wrote the main piece on the results.

“I’ve had coaches and scouts I trust tell me, repeatedly, that Freeney is the best pure pass-rusher in the league. They say he’s the guy they’d want if they could have anyone and the most difficult guy to stop because of the way he plots out his game. That’s stuck with me and was a big factor for me as I put together my ballot.”

Crush me for being a homer if you must -- and I’ve obviously seen Freeney way, way more than I have seen Ware, so it’s inevitable I get slanted there -- but I’ll stand by that.

Still on a different day with Ware highlights running on my computer screen, I could certainly have made things unanimous.

Here’s my entire ballot:
  1. Dwight Freeney
  2. DeMarcus Ware
  3. Tamba Hali
  4. Mario Williams
  5. Clay Matthews
  6. Robert Mathis
  7. Jared Allen
  8. LaMarr Woodley
  9. Justin Tuck
  10. John Abraham

I was miserable about leaving off Julius Peppers, Osi Umenyiora, Trent Cole, James Harrison, Terrell Suggs, Cameron Wake and Elvis Dumervil.

If I re-voted right now, I could second-guess myself as much as you and do a lot of shuffling.

As for AFC South guys -- I absolutely believe Mathis is worthy of a spot here. He's a terror. I may have scored Williams too high based on all the potential he has and the attention he draws. Others have that and more production.

Peppers was my toughest call. I’m big on constant effort from my pass-rushers and I am not sure he gives it.

I also agree with NFC West blogger Mike Sando that the proliferation of 3-4s complicates things, because we sifted through so many players. This year’s Houston Texans will be the first 3-4 defense I ever cover, and I am sure my judgment of outside 'backers will evolve because of it.

That 4-3 bias didn’t hurt Hali, but I’m sorry if Matthews, Woodley, Harrison, Suggs, Wake and Dumervil suffered for it.
NEW ORLEANS -- NFC North colleague Kevin Seifert has our Power Rankings on the pass-rushers and we’ve got one current NFC South representative and one former NFC South guy.

Atlanta’s John Abraham came in at No. 7. Chicago’s Julius Peppers, who spent his career with Carolina until leaving for the Bears last season is No. 8. Abraham and Peppers each were All-Pros last season, so shouldn’t they be a little higher?

Well, the voters said no and I was one of them. I voted Abraham at No. 7 on my ballot and my logic is simple. He’s coming of a 13-sack season, but he’s 32. He’s also one season removed from a 5.5-sack season. If Abraham were 27 and coming off a season like that, I guarantee you he’d be in my top three. But I couldn’t put him any higher at this point.

I put Peppers at No. 5 on my ballot and part of that is because he’s younger than Abraham and I think there remains potential for several huge years. Peppers’ numbers weren’t as good as Abraham’s last year, but Peppers is one of those rare athletes who can take over a game at any time.

Heck, I covered Peppers from the day Carolina drafted him. Wait, it goes back even before that. I was at his pro day at North Carolina back in 2002 and remember being amazed by the athleticism I saw. I was even more amazed as I watched him in practice each day. I saw him do things on the practice field I’ve never seen another football player do.

I also saw Peppers do that in games from time to time. But he’s never been able to consistently play to the level people expect due to his enormous athleticism. If he had, I gladly would have put him No. 1 on the list.

By the way, speaking of the NFC South and pass-rushers, that’s not a real position of strength. That’s why I wrote this column last week on why I think there could be several defensive ends coming to NFC South teams in the 2011 draft.
Clay Matthews/DeMarcus Ware/Dwight Freeney/Jared AllenESPN.com IllustrationDeMarcus Ware (94) was the clear choice for the top spot when our writers ranked the best pass-rushers in the game.
ESPN.com’s NFL writers rank the top 10 pass-rushers in the league today. Next week: Top 10 tight ends.

ESPN.com's panel of power rankers had no trouble identifying the best pass-rusher in football. The rest of our Top 10 list? It was easily the most difficult to compile so far in what will be a 10-week project.

Dallas Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware received seven of eight first-place votes. AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky ranked him No. 2, putting Indianapolis Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney at the top of his ballot. Overall, a total of 17 players received votes, and the crowd was dense enough to exclude established veterans such as Houston Texans defensive end Mario Williams, New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs and Colts defensive end Robert Mathis.

The category was tough, explained NFC West blogger Mike Sando, because "sack numbers tend to fluctuate from year to year and it's tougher to know which pass-rushers are truly the best. I think the proliferation of 3-4 defenses also made this a tougher call. We weren't evaluating defensive ends exclusively. We were also looking at 3-4 outside linebackers. That deepened the pool while forcing us to compare players at more than one position."

Ware, for one, wasn't a difficult choice -- as long as sacks are the primary statistical representation of pass rushing. Ware led the NFL in sacks last season with 15.5, and he has also had more combined sacks over the past two, three and five seasons combined than any other NFL player. At 28, he would seem to have several ultra-productive seasons remaining in his career.

Beyond Ware, however, the debate was fierce. The Green Bay Packers' Clay Matthews received the second-most votes (61), but there wasn't much separating him from Freeney (58) or Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen (52).

[+] EnlargeDallas' DeMarcus Ware
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesDeMarcus Ware had 15.5 sacks last season and has 80 sacks in six seasons in the NFL.
Kuharsky's familiarity with Freeney gave him a unique perspective.

"I've had coaches and scouts I trust tell me, repeatedly, that Freeney is the best pure pass-rusher in the league," Kuharsky said. "They say he's the guy they'd want if they could have anyone and the most difficult guy to stop because of the way he plots out his game. That's stuck with me and was a big factor for me as I put together my ballot."

From an NFC North perspective, I think it's interesting that Ware is the only NFL player who has recorded more sacks than Allen over the past five seasons. Allen's total of 11.0 last season was his low-water mark over the last four seasons, however, and the explicit instructions for voters were to base judgments on what we can expect for the 2011 season.

Given a choice between Allen, Matthews or Freeney in building a Super Bowl team for 2011, whom would you choose? With all due respect for Freeney (and Kuharsky, such that he deserves it) Matthews, 24, seems the right answer to me.

Matthews, Allen and Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers gave the NFC North a league-high three members of this exclusive group. Peppers' all-around contributions last season earned him a spot on The Associated Press' All-Pro team, but his total of eight sacks left him ranked eighth on our list.

Illustrating the difficulty of this exercise, two voters left Peppers off their ballots entirely and a third -- AFC North blogger James Walker -- ranked him No. 10. The Atlanta Falcons' John Abraham, The Associated Press' other first-team All-Pro defensive end, ranked a composite No. 7.

NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas, who covers Abraham and until 2010 covered Peppers as well, ranked Peppers No. 5 and said: "I know the sack numbers can rise and fall, but he has the ability to completely take over a game at any time." Meanwhile, a younger Abraham would have ranked higher.

"He had 11 sacks last year but 5.5 the year before," Yasinskas said. "At 32, you have to at least question whether he would sustain 2010 numbers in 2011."

Finally, if you're outraged about the absence of Williams, Tuck, Suggs, Mathis, the Philadelphia Eagles' Trent Cole or even the Denver Broncos' Elvis Dumervil, you probably need to focus your ire at the inclusion of Miami Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake. In his second NFL season, Wake exploded for 14 sacks.

Does one elite season merit inclusion on this list? Opinions varied widely among our voters. Wake was left off three ballots and voted No. 10 on three others. AFC East blogger Tim Graham, who saw more of Wake last season than any other voter, placed him No. 4.

"If we're ranking the best overall defensive ends or outside linebackers, then maybe Cameron Wake doesn't make my list," Graham said. "He's not a run-stuffer and is lacking when it comes to pass coverage. But we're rating pure pass-rushers, and that's the one thing Wake does on an elite level. He's a freakishly gifted athlete who creates havoc in the backfield.

"I also don't view Wake as a one-year wonder because he had a strong season in 2009 despite playing behind Joey Porter and Jason Taylor in most situations and under a different defensive coordinator. He should continue to thrive under Mike Nolan's guidance. I view Wake as a legitimate star who was overlooked on a mediocre team."

Your thoughts? I'm expecting them.

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