It’s no secret that scoring is down in the NFL this season. In the age of “high-flying offenses,” the defenses are catching up. One group that is wreaking havoc is the pass rushers, as the 7.2% sack rate is the highest through Week 9 of a season since 2001.
The “pass rusher” has become a premier position in the NFL. These 4-3 defensive ends or 3-4 outside linebackers can dramatically affect games with their ability to pressure quarterbacks, and there are a select few that have become more feared than the rest. They were feared by quarterbacks, feared by running backs, feared by blocking tight ends, and yes, feared by coaching staffs.
Below, we will break down the top five most-feared pass rushers in the NFL today, along with commentary from former NFL defensive end Leger Douzable.
(Sources: CBS Sports Research, Pro Football Focus, Stathead, TruMedia, ESPN Analytics)
5. Maxx Crosby, Las Vegas Raiders
- Age: 26
- PFF grade: 91.7 (No. 3)
- PFF pass-rush grade: 90.0 (No. 5)
- Pass rush win rate: 21% (T-No. 16)
“The Condor” has arguably been the best pass rusher in the NFL this season, and he’s quickly climbing the quarterbacks’ “most feared” list.
No NFL player has registered as many pressures (53) or tackles for loss (13) than Crosby this season. He has the fifth-best pass rush grade among edge defenders and is the only EDGE player ranked top five in both run defense and pass rush grade, per PFF. Crosby’s 9.5 sacks are tied for second in the NFL, but he’s more than just a pass rusher. He’s a well-rounded player, as his 56 tackles are the most by a defensive lineman this season.
Crosby is just the third player since 2000 to record nine or more sacks and 55 or more tackles through nine games. One was the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison, and the other was Terrell Suggs back in 2013. Crosby is on pace for 105 tackles and 17.5 sacks this season. The only player to hit both marks in a season was Reggie White in 1988 (133 tackles and 18.0 sacks).
Crosby is a nuisance. Granted, a 6-foot-5, 260-pound tatted-up nuisance. He’s going to make sure you know he’s there, even on plays where he doesn’t register a sack or QB hit. He’s going to “touch the merchandise,” even if it’s in between plays. As Patrick Mahomes noted on Netflix’s “Quarterback,” Crosby is the player who will hold you a little longer than he probably should and try to get that extra hit in. He’s that kind of guy — the player you love when he’s on your team, but hate when he’s playing for the opponent.
Apart from his football mentality and willingness to play mind games, Crosby also stands out for his durability. He has never missed a game in five seasons, and has played the most snaps of any defensive lineman since 2019! Crosby has played 97.8% of defensive snaps this season. That’s the highest by any defensive end since Chandler Jones in 2013.
Douzable’s dish: “I think what separates him, is he never comes off the field. And Maxx Crosby, the effort that he plays with, it’s not like he goes out there and takes plays off. He literally gives it his all every single play.”
4. T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh Steelers
- Age: 29
- PFF grade: 91.2 (T-No. 4)
- PFF pass-rush grade: 88.8 (No. 7)
- Pass rush win rate: 21% (T-No. 16)
Watt is a sack artist and just one away from his 88th QB takedown. If he secures that sack in the next six games, he will have recorded the second-most sacks in his first 100 career games since 1982, trailing only Reggie White (105.0). This season, Watt has recorded 9.5 sacks, which is tied for second in the NFL, and 18 QB hits, also tied for second in the NFL.
Watt’s 0.92 sacks per game is the MOST by any player since 1982 (min. 50 games). He had a stretch of four seasons where he recorded at least 13 sacks, highlighted by his Defensive Player of the Year campaign in 2021, in which he tied Michael Strahan’s NFL record with 22.5 sacks — in just 15 games played! That year, he led the league in sacks, quarterback hits (39) and fumble recoveries (three).
If you want to know how dominant Watt has been, it took him just 89 games to become the Steelers’ all-time sack leader, surpassing James Harrison’s 80.5 QB takedowns. Harrison recorded those 80.5 sacks over 177 games played for Pittsburgh.
Since he entered the league, Watt is fifth in QB hurries (102), first in forced fumbles (25), first in QB hits (180) and first in sacks (87). He’s a playmaker in other facets too, as Watt ranks fourth among all defenders in passes defended (43) since entering the league and tied for fifth in interceptions with seven.
How impactful is Watt for the Steelers? Pittsburgh is 1-10 when he doesn’t suit up, as opposed to 64-29-2 with him in the lineup. Watt is certainly someone who keeps defensive coordinators up at night.
Douzable’s dish: “I would say what separates him from every other rusher, is he understands pass rush. As far as what the offensive lineman is trying to do and how I can take that away from him. He understands different leverages. He understands how to use offensive tackles’ leverage against them. He’ll throw that rip in and bend that edge like nobody else in this league. He does have a chop club in his bag, but the thing that separates T.J. Watt is his knowledge of leverage and understanding what offensive linemen are trying to do and how to combat that.”
3. Nick Bosa, San Francisco 49ers
- Age: 26
- PFF grade: 92.0 (No. 2)
- PFF pass-rush grade: 91.6 (No. 2)
- Pass rush win rate: 21% (T-No. 16)
The reigning Defensive Player of the Year may only have three sacks in eight games played thus far, but Bosa leads the league with 19 QB hits, is tied for fifth in pressures with 44, has a 16.7% pressure percentage and is PFF’s second-best pass rusher halfway through the 2023 season.
Bosa’s 2022 campaign was one for the books. The former No. 2 overall pick led the league with 18.5 sacks, ranked second in tackles for loss with 19 and was tied for the league lead in pressures with 90. In four total seasons, Bosa has won NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, been named an All-Pro, earned three Pro Bowl bids and won NFL Defensive Player of the Year, which is why he earned a five-year, $170 million extension in September that includes $122.5 million guaranteed, making him the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history.
Bosa is currently not a favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year for the second straight season and even admitted that his preseason holdout has affected him a little bit. But expect him to shine even more in the second half of the season, and the addition of his college teammate Chase Young will only help. This is a playmaker you always have to account for, whether it’s on a stretch run or five-step drop.
Douzable’s dish: “What he was able to do last year, 18.5 (sacks), led the league. People forget the year before he had 15.5 (sacks) he was coming off an ACL. That’s unheard of, to come off an ACL and have 15.5 sacks. This dude has a high motor, and it’s not just in the passing game, he dominates in the run game. His speed-to-power is ridiculous. I think it’s his play strength that really separates him from everybody else on this list.”
2. Micah Parsons, Dallas Cowboys
- Age: 24
- PFF grade: 91.0 (No. 6)
- PFF pass-rush grade: 91.5 (No. 3)
- Pass rush win rate: 33% (No. 1)
The unicorn. NFL Draft scouts knew Parsons had pass-rush ability coming out of Penn State, but no one knew he would win Defensive Rookie of the Year while racking up 13 sacks and 30 QB hits. Parsons upped the ante in 2022 with 13.5 sacks and is on his way to yet another career year.
Parsons has the highest pass rush win rate this season after finishing in first last season (33%), the highest pressure rate (22%) (min. 200 pass rushes), second-most pressures (49) and the second-highest double team rate (29%) among top 20 EDGE rushers in ESPN’s pass rush win rate rankings. Parsons is on pace for 15 sacks, 21 tackles for loss and 36 QB hits.
Since entering the league in 2021, Parsons ranks in the top five in QB hurries (35), sacks (34), forced fumbles (7), tackles for loss (43) and QB hits (73). You can argue his production vs. some of the other players on this list, but what really separates Parsons is how Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn uses him. He’s not a left defensive end or right defensive end. He’s going to hit each one of the five offensive linemen multiple times during the course of a game.
|PRECISE PLAY POSITION (PFF)||SNAPS IN 2023|
|Right outside linebacker||126|
|Left outside linebacker||96|
|Outside left end||64|
|Right outside end||36|
|Left inside linebacker||25|
|Right inside linebacker||5|
|Nose tackles to the left of the center||3|
He’ll get to the quarterback as a linebacker four yards off the line of scrimmage — running through three offensive linemen on his way to paydirt.
Micah Parsons is relentless pic.twitter.com/auNfZG4GtZ
— Shane Haff (@ShaneHaffNFL) November 7, 2023
To put it succinctly, Parsons is a game-wrecker who flies in from all different angles and positions. That’s why he’s so feared, and why he’s the favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year.
Douzable’s dish: “Swiss Army Knife. This dude lines up at linebacker, line him up over the center, line him up at the end. I would say the thing about Micah Parsons, he’s probably the lightest guy on this list, but as far as his get-off and the way he can put offensive tackles in binds. He has them playing outside themselves because if you don’t kick back far enough, he’s going to beat you on the edge. But if you do kick back far enough, he’s so athletic that he can plant that foot in the ground and make that inside move like nobody else on this list.”
1. Myles Garrett, Cleveland Browns
- Age: 27
- PFF grade: 93.3 (No. 1)
- PFF pass-rush grade: 94.6 (No. 1)
- Pass rush win rate: 32% (No. 2)
Garrett is playing the best football he’s ever played. This is scary to say about someone who has been named an All-Pro three years in a row now. The former No. 1 overall pick out of Texas A&M admitted as much during a recent appearance on “The Pat McAfee Show.”
“I think I’m nearing my prime, the peak of my powers,” Garrett said, via Pro Football Talk. “I think it’s just matching that experience and that wisdom as well as, like, my athletic ability. Both of those being combined, I think that’s really taken my game to another level.”
Garrett is the most feared pass rusher today. He has the highest PFF grade among EDGE defenders in 2023, the highest PFF pass-rush grade among defenders, the fastest average time to pressure (2.1), the second-best pass-rush win rate (32%) and the highest double-team rate (31%) among top 20 EDGE rushers in ESPN’s pass rush win rate rankings. He also always has eyes on the football and leads the NFL with four strip-sacks on the year.
Garrett has been held without a sack in just two games this season and has every right to be cocky with how this year is going. He clearly feels a different kind of energy under new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, and was practicing his basketball moves in Week 1!
— DLineVids (@dlinevids1) September 11, 2023
Arguably Garrett’s best game of the season came against the Tennessee Titans in Week 3, when he registered 3.5 sacks, five combined tackles, three tackles for loss, five QB hits, and one forced fumble. The Titans scored just three points, and were held to 94 yards of total offense! Garrett had Tennessee so rattled that the offense ended up sending two tight ends in motion wherever he went. Talk about feared.
If Garrett’s best game this season wasn’t against the Titans, consider what he did against the Indianapolis Colts a few weeks later. Garrett recorded nine combined tackles, two sacks, and two forced fumbles — one in the end zone that was recovered for a touchdown. Oh yeah, and he blocked a field goal by jumping over the offensive line.
The Browns defense is one of the best units in the league. The 234.8 yards allowed per game ranks best since the 1991 Philadelphia Eagles, their 12.7% sack rate is the highest since the 2000 New Orleans Saints, the third-down percentage of 26% is the best since the 2019 New England Patriots and the three-and-out percentage of 56.6% is the best since at least 2000. Garrett is a huge reason for that.
Douzable’s dish: “I don’t even think that it should be a question that Myles should be the No. 1. He should be the favorite for Defensive Player of the Year for how he’s played this year.
“He’s an alien. The dude’s not human. I mean, to be 6-foot-5, nearly 280 (pounds) and to be able to bend the way he does? I mean you saw him earlier this year playing basketball on an opposing center. Like literally dribbling the ball through his legs, he hits him with a stunner move and then comes back out with the quickness as if he was doing a crossover basketball play, and gets a quarterback hit.
“I think that’s the thing, as far as just attributes and things he does, I think for him to be able to bend that fast, it’s not normal. And when I say bend, when an offensive lineman is on your hip and he’s trying to push you by the quarterback, (Garrett) has the strength and flexibility to bend to combat that to get to the quarterback.”