Measuring the best pass-rushers on a basis deeper than just sacks has long been a challenge for NFL analysts across the field. Simply counting sacks is a fine place to start, but that leaves out the plays in which pressure and disruption rain down on the quarterback, which also carry great importance even if the defenders don't get home. As Rotoworld draft analyst Josh Norris puts it, disruption is production. Many analytics sites do excellent work charting hours of game film to record and tally instances where they believe a quarterback is under pressure.
However, with the Next Gen Stats data gleaned from the tracking chips in players' shoulder pads, we are now able to objectively measure just how far away opposing pass rushers are from the quarterback when they look to deliver their passes. In the latest edition of the Next Gen Stats rankings, we'll reveal the top 10 2016 edge rushers at creating pressure by their average raw yards of distance from the opposing quarterback at the time of throw or sack.
Notes: The term "edge rusher" is a title intended to group together both traditional 4-3 defensive ends and rush linebackers in odd fronts like the 3-4. This does not include interior rushers like Joey Bosa or Jadeveon Clowney, check back next week for those rankings.
In order to get a glimpse of some of the premier pass rushers in the NFL, only edge rushers with 300 or more pass rush attempts were considered for this ranking. Other rotational players with great scores are mentioned in the "bonus notes" section. The percentiles quoted are for all edge rushers this season, not just 300-plus attempt players.
1) Von Miller, Denver Broncos (3.76 average distance to the quarterback)
Not many players are capable of wreaking havoc on a passing unit's game plan like Von Miller. The All-Pro linebacker posted yet another season of double-digit sacks with 13.5 in 2016, second only to Vic Beasley. Miller has hit double-digit sacks every year of his career outside of 2013 when he played just nine games due to a suspension. A decorated NFL veteran at this stage of his career, Miller added a third first-team All-Pro spot to his award cabinet that includes a Super Bowl MVP honor from 2015. The seminal piece of the NFL's best pass rushing defense, the Broncos star player continues adding to a career resume that will likely end with a strong Hall of Fame push.
2) Brian Orakpo, Tennessee Titans (3.83 average distance to the quarterback)
The past two years have been a joyous return to form for Brian Orakpo. The veteran linebacker has experienced one of the more impressive career revivals in Tennessee since he arrived in Nashville after inking a free agent deal. Injuries thwarted the 2009 first-round pick's stint in Washington after he emerged as a dangerous edge threat right away in the first three years of his career. Orakpo tore a pectoral muscle in three separate seasons in Washington; at the end of the 2011 season, two games into 2012 and then again in 2014 after a bounce-back, 10-sack 2013 campaign.
Orakpo racked up 17.5 sacks over the last two seasons in the Titans aggressive 3-4 defense. His 3.83 average distance to the quarterback at time of throw or sack underscores that he's consistently putting heat on opposing passers even when he doesn't take them down. Tennessee has Orakpo under contract until 2019 on a deal that averaged $7.5 million per year. A situation that looks like a bargain in hindsight.
3) Melvin Ingram, San Diego Chargers (3.86 average distance to the quarterback)
In posting 18.5 sacks over the last two season, Melvin Ingram has stabilized a career that started off slow amid injuries. Ingram executed 341 pass rush plays this season, second only to Vic Beasley among the edge players on this top 10. Even when he's not getting home for the sack, Ingram is a consistently disruptive force. He and impact rookie Joey Bosa teamed up to form one of the most dangerous edge and interior pass rushing forces in the NFL. Ingram's big season comes at the perfect time, as his contract will expire in March. Should he hit the open market, the 27-year old pass rusher will break the bank in a big way.
4) Derrick Morgan, Tennessee Titans (3.94 average distance to the quarterback)
The 16th overall pick in the 2010 draft turned in a career year at age 27, notching nine sacks in 15 games. Much like his teammate Brian Orakpo, Derrick Morgan found new life the last two seasons playing rush linebacker in Dick LeBeau's pressure packages. Morgan's 3.94 average yards to the quarterback at time of sack or throw is in the 91st percentile among edge players this season. He's a consistent pressure threat. With two edge rushers in this top 10 list, one would imagine the Titans would finish better than 30th in passing yards allowed this season. This reality only serves to emphasize how much help Tennessee needs in a secondary that had Brice McCain and Antwon Blake playing major snaps by the end of the season.
5) Whitney Mercilus, Houston Texans (3.96 average distance to the quarterback)
Of course, Jadeveon Clowney's breakout season helped in a big way, but yet another strong campaign from Whitney Mercilus as an edge player helped the Texans offset the early loss of J.J. Watt. Mercilus has 19.5 sacks to his name over the last two seasons. Romeo Crennel and Mike Vrabel have done wonders to elevate the 2012 first-round pick to near elite status the last several seasons, including moving him around the formation between the outside and over the center.
Mercilus is now well-established as one of the better pass rushers in the NFL and he will team up with full-strength Clowney and healthy Watt, hopefully, next season to create a truly terrifying proposition for opponents. Even better for Houston, they have Mercilus under contract at a bargain rate. He signed a deal that runs through 2019 and averages just $6.5 million per year.
6) Brandon Graham, Philadelphia Eagles (4.01 average distance to the quarterback)
It's been a curious career for Brandon Graham. He hasn't recorded more than 6.5 sacks in any season of his career, but he's always been a favorite among those who watch defensive players closely. Graham was always regarded as an ill-fit for the 3-4 defense Chip Kelly wanted to employ and that appeared to be the case after he had such a strong season in 2016. Back with his hand in the dirt, Graham's 4.01 average yards to the quarterback at time to throw or sack was in the 89th percentile among edge players this season. He might never be a sack master, but he brings consistent disruption to the pocket. Graham plays in a talented pressure unit that also includes interior maven Fletcher Cox and Vinny Curry. Philadelphia needs to explore upgrading a cornerback corps that fell apart down the stretch and rendered their strong pass rush group moot.
7) Vic Beasley, Atlanta Falcons (4.01 average distance to the quarterback)
After his rookie season Vic Beasley needed to ignore odd rumblings in the media that the Falcons considered cutting or trading the eighth-overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Beasley notched just four sacks in his first season and struggled to find a true home in an NFL defense. All that changed in 2016. Beasley didn't just bounce back; he finished as the league's leader in sacks with 15.5. He wreaked major havoc in several games with four contests with two or more sacks. Beasley's 4.01 average yards to the quarterback at time of throw or sack was just shy of the 90th percentile among edge rushers this season.
Perhaps the biggest assist in pumping juice into Beasley's sophomore season was simplifying his assignment, stationing him almost exclusively on the defensive left side. All but one of Vic Beasley's 15.5 sacks came from the left side of the defense.
The Next Gen Stats player location heat map helps show what a stark contrast that was from his lackluster rookie season. Beasley's map from 2015 shows him splitting reps between right and left edge player:
Now that Dan Quinn and his coaching staff have found a successful utilization plan for the young pass rusher, the next step will be honing his skills for a more consistent output. Beasley posted a 3.81 pressure score in games where he registered multiple sacks but saw that fall to 4.51 in weeks where he did not. The Falcons have a young defense littered with rangy athletic players. As Atlanta attempts to catch that unit up to the quality of their top ranked offense, Beasley's efforts will remain the cornerstone.
8) Jerry Hughes, Buffalo Bills (4.07 average distance to the quarterback)
A first-round flop for the Colts, two Buffalo Bills coaching staffs have managed to get the most out of Jerry Hughes as a pass rusher. The 2010 31st-overall pick managed just five sacks and seven starts over three years with the Colts. Since signing with the Bills in 2012, Hughes has 31 sacks to his name. His 4.07 Next Gen Stats pressure score puts him above the 80th percentile among NFL edge rushers this year. Hughes is under contract until 2019 and is set to enter his age 31 season. His fellow edge rusher Lorenzo Alexander (4.41 pressure score) will be 34 and is coming off a career year with 12.5 sacks, more than he had his entire career before 2016. The Bills will hope to have Shaq Lawson in full form next season to figure into the rotation, as the 2016 first-round pick played just 237 defensive snaps this year.
9) Ryan Kerrigan, Washington Redskins (4.08 average distance to the quarterback)
Ryan Kerrigan is the lead dog in a Washington edge group that checked in at the ninth ranked pass rush unit in 2016, per the Next Gen Stats. The veteran edge player and 16th overall pick in the 2011 draft led the team this year with 11 sacks. It was the second-highest total of his career. Kerrigan is the consummate example of the rock in a Washington defense that went through plenty of turnover since his drafting six seasons ago. His presence certainly helps the two younger pass rushers who play alongside him in the rotation. While neither Preston Smith (4.03 pressure score) or Trent Murphy (4.29 pressure score) hit the 300 pass rush attempts minimum to be considered for this list, they registered pressure scores in the 88th and 59th percentile, respectively, among edge rushers this season.
10) Chandler Jones, Arizona Cardinals (4.10 average distance to the quarterback)
The Arizona Cardinals came away as big winners in a trade with the Patriots that saw them ship off Jonathan Cooper and a second round pick for Chandler Jones. Cooper spent time on the Patriots, Browns and Cowboys this season, so you know how that part of the deal turned out, and a second round pick for a top-10 NFL pass rusher is a bargain for Arizona. Jones registered 11 sacks in his first season with the Cardinals and his 4.1 average distance to the quarterback at time of throw or sack puts him just shy of the 80th percentile among edge players this season. Jones helps form one of the best pass-rushing duos in the NFL alongside Markus Golden, who incidentally enough, would check in just behind his teammate at 11th on this ranking with a 4.11 pressure score. The next challenge for the Cardinals to truly make their deal for Jones a success will be to lock him up to a long-term deal, something New England was not interested in doing. Arizona will strongly consider slapping the franchise tag on the soon-to-be 27-year old pass rusher to keep him off the open market this offseason.
Khalil Mack averaged 4.16 yards to the quarterback at time of throw or sack this season, checking in at 13th among edge rushers with 300-plus pass rush attempts. The first complaint for readers will no doubt be that Mack is off the list. His pressure score is still above the 65th percentile for all edge players this year. Mack's value also lies in more than just his pass rush, as he's one of the better run defenders among edges. The same complaint might be filed for Michael Bennett's exclusion, but because he only played 11 games, he fell below the 300 minimum threshold, despite a sterling 4.04 pressure score.
No player registered more pass rush attempts than Olivier Vernon who had 484 and played a ridiculous 94 percent of the Giants snaps. His teammate Jason Pierre-Paul was on an even higher pace, with 367 in 12 games, before missing the end of the season with an injury. Vernon's pressure score (4.52) was just below the 30th percentile and Pierre-Paul (4.72) finished in the 17th. Both are effective pass rushers, don't get that wrong, but this just goes to underscore the importance of having a rotation to keep players fresh.
Shane Ray (3.52) and James Harrison (3.73) posted better pressure than Von Miller. However, they failed to crack the 300 pass rush attempts minimum threshold for the rankings. Ray registered 252 attempts while the ageless Harrison had just 180.
The Panthers' Mario Addison had 4.01 pressure score on 227 pass rush attempts. Addison's score was in the 89th percentile among NFL edge rushers this season, while no other Panthers player finished above the 40th. With Carolina likely tied up with Kawaan Short's expiring contract, there's a strong chance Addision hits the open market this offseason.