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J.J. Watt, Von Miller among top pass rushers I've scouted

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With the thick of the offseason upon us, it's the perfect time for me to dig through my old notes to see if I can learn from my past scouting reports as I begin to evaluate the next wave of top talents in the college game. I've already taken a look at the top quarterback, running back and wide receiver prospects I've evaluated throughout my career based on how I graded their college film. This week, I'm taking a deep dive into pass rushers to reevaluate how I ranked them based on the way I viewed their potential during the pre-draft process.

The NFL's shift to a pass-heavy emphasis has made pass rusher the marquee position on defense. Teams are looking to feature a pair of explosive rushers off the edges to harass quarterbacks into costly mistakes that result in turnovers. With that in mind, I've always favored pass rushers with explosive athleticism and cat-like first-step quickness in the evaluation process. Part of my thinking has been influenced by the Pro Football Hall of Fame teammates (Bruce Smith, Reggie White and Derrick Thomas) I played with during my career. Those guys were quick starters off the ball and their ability to turn the corner on speed rushes made it difficult for quarterbacks to stand comfortably in the pocket.

As I look back through my old scouting reports on the top pass rushers I've evaluated over the years based on their collegiate performance and production, it's not a coincidence that speed, athleticism and explosiveness are the common traits that show up in the elites at the position. The most disruptive playmakers at the position dominate games with their electric athletic traits and it's hard to find a blue-chip pass rusher in the game without elite athleticism.

Here are my top 10 pass-rush prospects from my time as a scout (since 2001).

Editor's note: Click through the tabs above to see rankings for other positions.

1. Julius Peppers, North Carolina

Drafted: Second overall, 2002, Carolina Panthers

It's hard to find polished pass rushers with NBA-power-forward-like size and athleticism, which is why the Tar Heel standout earned rave reviews from scouts leading up to the 2002 draft.

As a two-sport star (football/basketball) as a collegian, Peppers was viewed as a freakish athlete with extraordinary potential as a pass rusher. He led the nation in sacks (15) as a sophomore and finished his three-year career with 30.5 sacks and 53 tackles for loss. With Peppers generating a high level of production strictly on his athleticism, agility and natural rush skills, it was easy to fall in love with his potential to step in as an impact player from Day 1. While some questioned his motor and affection for the game based on his quiet demeanor and basketball background, there was no disputing his upside as a ultra-athletic playmaker off the edge.

Peppers quickly confirmed that opinion when he captured the 2002 Defensive Rookie of the Year Award after tallying 12 sacks in 12 games while showcasing a game that blended finesse with power off the edge. The easy-moving edge defender continued to add to his repertoire as he's tallied 143.5 sacks, 50 forced fumbles and 18 fumble recoveries in 15 seasons as a rusher, while also adding 11 interceptions as an occasional dropper in pass coverage. Considering how easy Peppers made it look to dominate off the edge, he deserves to sit atop this list as the most impressive pass rusher that I've ever scouted.

2. Von Miller, Texas A&M

Drafted: Second overall, 2011, Denver Broncos

It's easy to fall in love with a productive pass rusher with jackrabbit-like quickness and agility. That's why scouts were smitten with the Aggies' standout after watching him rack up 33 sacks and 50.5 tackles for loss while flashing extraordinary snap-count anticipation and first-step quickness off the ball. Miller's ultra-quick first step reminded me of the late Derrick Thomas and several other evaluators tossed around the Pro Football Hall of Famer's name when making projections for the two-time first-team All-American.

The love affair with Miller's potential grew even more intense after he earned Defensive MVP honors at the Senior Bowl and blew up the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine as an athletic freak (Miller clocked a 4.53-second 40; 6.70-second three-cone drill; 4.06 short shuttle; 37-inch vertical jump and 10-foot-6 broad jump). Although a handful of skeptics suggested that Miller's motor didn't run hot, it was hard to find a glaring weakness in his game as an explosive pass rusher off the edge. He was one of the few pass rushers capable of winning with finesse or power, and his closing quickness made him nearly impossible to contain when he turned the corner on "bend-and-burst" efforts.

Miller certainly has made his presence known as an elite pass rusher with 73.5 sacks in 88 career games with the Denver Broncos. The five-time Pro Bowl selectee and Super Bowl 50 MVP has continued to blow past blockers using a series of finesse moves (spin move and dip-and-rip) to wreak havoc off the edge. With Miller typically positioned against lumbering right tackles, his combination of speed and quickness has made him one of the most feared pass rushers in the game.

3. Terrell Suggs, Arizona State

Drafted: 10th overall, 2003, Baltimore Ravens

The All-Pac-10 standout is the classic example of why scouts should value film evaluation over workout performance. Suggs was an absolute monster as a pass rusher at Arizona State, exhibiting a rugged pass-rush style that overwhelmed even elite offensive tackles in the conference.

The 6-foot-3, 265-pounder set the single-season sack record with 24 on the way to tallying 44 sacks in his three-year career. In addition, he totaled 65.5 tackles for loss, 14 forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries, as he completely dominated opponents from his edge position with his polished hand-to-hand-combat skills and brute strength.

Despite his fantastic production, scouts questioned Suggs' impact potential following a dismal set of workouts during the pre-draft process. In the NFL, Suggs proved that he is a better player than athlete by winning the 2003 Defensive Rookie of the Year Award after tallying 12 sacks, including a sack in each of his first four games. The 2011 Defensive Player of the Year has earned six Pro Bowl honors by bullying offensive tackles on the way to 114.5 sacks and 30 forced fumbles in 14 seasons. Suggs quickly mastered the two-hand swipe maneuver and added a powerful bull rush that made him nearly impossible to contain off the edge.

With "T-Sizzle" also displaying a non-stop motor and a nasty streak, the Ravens' designated pass rusher has certainly lived up to the lofty expectations that preceded his arrival.

4. Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina

Drafted: First overall, 2014, Houston Texans

The legend of Clowney grew to epic levels after his bone-rattling hit on Michigan RB Vincent Smith in the 2013 Outback Bowl, but scouts were salivating over his potential from the first day that the five-star recruit stepped onto the South Carolina campus rated as the No. 1 player in the 2011 high school class.

Measuring 6-foot-5, 250-plus pounds with extraordinary athleticism and explosiveness, Clowney was the kind of explosive athlete that every defensive coordinator covets on the edge. After tallying 21 sacks over his first two seasons while showcasing a game deeply rooted in explosive strength and power, Clowney was viewed as a "generational talent" capable of taking the league by storm. Although a disappointing junior season (only three sacks in 2013) tempered some of those expectations, he certainly reignited the hype machine when he blew up the NFL Combine with a spectacular performance (4.53-second 40; 37.5-inch vertical jump and 10-foot-4 broad jump while measuring 6-foot-5, 266 pounds) that showcased his freakish athletic talents.

As a pro, Clowney was viewed as a potential bust after missing most of his first two seasons with a rash of injuries, but the 2014 No. 1 overall pick quieted his doubters with a spectacular 2016 campaign that showcased his potential as a shop wrecker off the edge. The second-team All-Pro selection registered six sacks and 16 tackles for loss as a Swiss Army knife along the Houston Texans' front line.

With Clowney finally playing up to his potential, there are plenty of scouts feeling better about those big grades scribbled in their old notebooks.

5. Dwight Freeney, Syracuse

Drafted: 11th overall, 2002, Indianapolis Colts

It's hard to place a big grade on an undersized pass rusher, but Freeney certainly deserved high marks after posting 34 sacks and 51.5 tackles for loss during his time with the Orange.

As a two-year starter, Freeney terrorized opponents with his cat-like quickness and agility while displaying exceptional power as a low-leverage player. He complemented his "bend-and-burst" speed rush with an unorthodox spin move that routinely left offensive tackles flat-footed and unable to stop his charge to the quarterback. While scouts questioned whether he possessed the length to win against long offensive tackles due to his 6-foot-1, 255-pound frame, the seven-time Pro Bowl selectee found a way to use his combination of speed (4.48-second 40), quickness and power to overwhelm blockers on the edge for the Indianapolis Colts.

He posted at least 10 sacks in seven of his 11 seasons with the club on the way to totaling 122.5 sacks over 15 seasons. For a guy with less-than-ideal dimensions, Freeney's production certainly proves he was a worthy exception to the prototypical standards that rule the position.

6. DeMarcus Ware, Troy

Drafted: 11th overall, 2005, Dallas Cowboys

Small-school standouts must post dizzying numbers on and off the field to earn high marks in the scouting community. In addition, they must hold their own against elite competition to remove any doubts about their worthiness to be a top pick. Ware not only won battles against everyone that he faced as a two-time All-Sun Belt Conference selection, but did it while displaying outstanding athleticism and movement off the corner. The 6-foot-4, 262-pound pass rusher tallied 27.5 sacks and 55.5 tackles for loss at Troy and continued his dominance against elite competition at the Senior Bowl, which allowed the Dallas Cowboys and others to feel comfortable about his transition to the NFL as a small-school star.

Ware certainly transitioned well as a hybrid 3-4 outside linebacker for America's Team. He posted double-digit sacks in seven of his nine seasons with the team and finished his career with 138.5 sacks as a four-time All-Pro honoree. With a pair of back-to-back sack titles (2011 and 2012) also on the resume, it's safe to say Ware met the bar as a top pick.

7. Vic Beasley, Clemson

Drafted: Eighth overall, 2015, Atlanta Falcons

Whenever a college pass rusher displays exceptional first-step quickness and burst coming off the corner, scouts pay closer attention to his hand skills to see if the prospect has the potential to develop into an elite playmaker off the edge. That's why there was plenty of intrigue surrounding Beasley's game after he collected 33 sacks as the DPR (designated pass rusher) for the Tigers.

The 6-foot-3, 246-pound defensive end displayed natural pass-rush skills and explosive athleticism while using an assortment of finesse moves off the edge. Whether it was his sprinter's speed rush or his figure-skater-like spin move, Beasley's rare ability to get to the quarterback jumped off the screen when reviewing his tape. Although his slender frame was certainly a concern, he had a solid resume loaded with production against high-level competition.

Despite getting off to a slow start as a pro, Beasley has flashed enough potential to justify the high marks that he earned as a collegian. He tallied 15.5 sacks and six forced fumbles on the way to earning All-Pro honors in his second season. Most important, Beasley emerged as the disruptive playmaker every defense needs to make a Super Bowl run.

8. Khalil Mack, Buffalo

Drafted: Fifth overall, 2014, Oakland Raiders

There were plenty of scouts who considered Mack the best player in the 2014 draft class after watching the three-time All-MAC selectee finish his career as the NCAA's all-time leader in tackles for loss (75) and forced fumbles (16). The 2013 MAC Defensive Player of the Year exhibited a devastating combination of strength, power and explosiveness off the edge as a power-based pass rusher. Mack not only used a series of bull rushes and forklift maneuvers to win on the outside but he flashed a nasty spin move to win on an inside rush.

As a pro, Mack is on the verge of redefining the edge rusher position as the only player to earn first-team All-Pro honors at two different positions (outside linebacker/defensive end) in 2015. He has collected 30 sacks in 48 games as a "bull-in-a-china-shop" rusher with a game that simply overwhelms blockers. With Mack beginning to add more finesse moves to the repertoire to complement his rugged play, the 2016 Defensive Player of the Year might've been underrated on my list of pass rushers.

9. Shawne Merriman, Maryland

Drafted: 12th overall, 2005, San Diego Chargers

Evaluators are quick to slap big grades on prospects with A-level athleticism and big-play potential as an edge rusher. That's why there was plenty of excitement over Merriman's potential to develop into a difference maker as a pro after he collected 22 sacks in three seasons at Maryland while displaying remarkable athleticism and explosiveness off the edge.

The 6-foot-4, 272-pounder ran a 4.64-second 40 and popped a 40-inch vertical jump at the 2005 NFL Scouting Combine that cemented his status as one of the most explosive athletes in the class. As a pro, Merriman quickly confirmed that opinion when he steamrolled over blockers on the way to racking up 39.5 sacks during his first three seasons, which also included a pair of first-team All-Pro sections and the 2005 Defensive Rookie of the Year Award.

Although a spate of injuries prevented Merriman from playing at that elite level again, he was arguably the best pass rusher in the league from 2005 to 2007 and that more than meets the expectations that accompanied his arrival as a first-round pick.

10. J.J. Watt, Wisconsin

Drafted: 11th overall, 2011, Houston Texans

There's no way anyone would've suggested that a former college walk-on would emerge as a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award winner based on his resume as a first-team All-Big Ten selection at Wisconsin. Sure, he was one of the most explosive athletic freaks at the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine (6-foot-5, 290 pounds with 34-inch arms and 11 1/8-inch hands; 4.84-second 40-yard dash; 6.88-second three-cone drill; 37-inch vertical jump; 10-foot broad jump and 34 reps on bench press), but Watt was viewed as more of a run stopper than pass rusher as a five-technique prospect.

While he certainly flashed potential as a pass rusher with 11.5 sacks and 36.5 tackles for loss in two seasons, Watt earned high marks largely due to his athleticism and disruptive potential as a high-motor player.

In the NFL, Watt has more than exceeded expectations with 76 sacks in 83 career games. The veteran defender overwhelms blockers with his combination of strength, power and explosiveness at the point of attack. With Watt free to rush from anywhere on the line in the Houston Texans' scheme, the seventh-year pro has surprisingly become the preeminent pass rusher in the league.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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