Top pass rushers are among the NFL's most highly valued assets, as evidenced by the franchise tags applied to Greg Hardy and Brian Orakpo in addition to Jason Worilds' transition tag. Teams simply don't allow under-30 sack artists to hit the open market.
These rankings include outside linebackers in "3-4" defenses and defensive ends in "4-3" schemes. J.J. Watt, who moves around the defensive line and does a good portion of his damage on the interior, will be on a future list with the rest of the 3-4 ends such as Muhammad Wilkerson and Cameron Jordan.
Likewise, Von Miller is a well-rounded strong-side linebacker, who does a lot more than rush the passer. He has already been ranked with the "4-3" linebackers on a previous list.
If Watt and Miller weren't ticketed for different categories, they would join Robert Quinn as the headliners in these rankings.
Without further ado, let's rank the best edge rushers.
Quinn's speed ranks with the early-career versions of Jevon Kearse and Dwight Freeney as the best we've witnessed from a defensive end. He and Mathis are masters of the strip sack, combining for 17 forced fumbles last season. As Gregg Rosenthal recently pointed out, Wake might be the NFL's best pass rusher since the start of the 2010 season. His should be a household name.
Smith might be on the sidelines with a suspension once the season kicks off, but it's hard to find fault with his on-field work. He's averaged a sack per game since entering the league in 2012. Mathis was a Defensive Player of the Year finalist last season at age 32. That bodes well for Ware's bounce-back prospects at age 31. Before a nagging quadriceps injury rendered him ineffective, Ware still displayed his trademark lightning-quick first step early last season.
Williams was unstoppable early last season with 11 sacks in the first half of the season, only to be outplayed by Jerry Hughes down the stretch. The Chiefs' defense allowed a scant 16 points per game with Houston in the lineup last season versus 25 when he was sidelined with an elbow injury for five games. He has piled up 21 sacks in his last 27 games.
Hardy and Johnson are the NFL's premier defensive-end tandem. This season might be Hali's swan song in Kansas City. He will carry a $12 million salary-cap figure in 2015, and the Chiefs will have impressive rookie Dee Ford primed for a bigger role. Orakpo and Suggs don't get to the quarterback as much as the other high-end pass rushers, but they offer the stoutest run defense of the bunch.
Bill Belichick's All-22 breakdowns from the 2013 season leave no doubt as to Jones' importance to the Patriots defense. Long is one-fourth of the most dominant defensive line in football. Dumervil has been good for a dozen sacks per season since entering the league.
Bennett is the best player in Seattle's disruptive defensive-line rotation. Houston and Galette each showed flashes of Pro Bowl potential in breakout 2013 seasons. Johnson stuffs the run as well as any pass rusher. Dunlap will be charged with converting more of his hurries into sacks now that Johnson is out of the picture in Cincinnati. Allen and Cole remain highly effective as they embark on the decline phase of their careers. Kerrigan isn't a star, but he's good for 8.0 sacks annually.
Worilds is coming off one of the great contract-year pushes of recent memory, racking up seven sacks and 20 quarterback hits in the final eight games of 2013. Tuck mirrored that second-half production in his own contract push. Robison outplayed Jared Allen in Minnesota last season. Sheard did the same to a more expensive Paul Kruger in Cleveland.
Peppers and Abraham are no longer difference-makers, but still remain valuable. Avril had a legitimate claim for MVP of Super Bowl XLVIII. Vernon quietly emerged as a quality pass rusher, posting 11.5 sacks while holding off Dion Jordan in 2013. Freeney tormented Texans Pro Bowl left tackle Duane Brown early last season, only to go down with a quadriceps injury. He's going to be relegated to a situational role in his age-34 season.
JPP was in the top tier two years ago, but back troubles have sapped his explosiveness. The Giants defense desperately needs him to return to pre-injury form, just as the Raiders need the early-career version of Woodley. Griffen is a candidate to "make the leap" in Mike Zimmer's Vikings defense. Kruger was a free-agent bust in his first season with the Browns. Ninkovich is underrated for his run-stuffing abiliity. Morgan is a questionable fit in Ray Horton's 3-4 defense that will also feature Phillips.
Potential vs. production: Brandon Graham, Ezekiel Ansah, Jarvis Jones, Dion Jordan, Melvin Ingram, Quinton Coples, Andre Branch, Barkevious Mingo, Shea McClellin, Bjoern Werner, Margus Hunt, Damontre Moore, Nick Perry, Whitney Mercilus, William Gholston
Graham would be a candidate for double digits sacks if he escaped Philadelphia for a team with a 4-3 defense. Ansah's bull rush has resident ATL Lions fan Kevin Patra excited for his 2014 prospects. Ingram helped key a defensive turnaround in San Diego down the stretch. Branch finally showed signs of fulfilling his second-round pedigree, generating five sacks in the final six games of last season.
Grab bag: Osi Umenyiora, Jason Jones, Jarret Johnson, Courtney Upshaw, Adrian Clayborn, Robert Ayers, Calvin Pace, George Selvie, Erik Walden, Mike Neal, Matt Shaughnessy, Kamerion Wimbley, Mathias Kiwanuka, Kroy Biermann, Victor Butler, Anthony Spencer
Umenyiora left a lot to be desired as Atlanta's top pass rusher last season. Johnson and Upshaw are run-defense specialists, Clayborn has not lived up to expectations in Tampa. Biermann, Butler and Spencer are wild cards coming off major injuries.