Top 10 pass rushers to pursue in free agency, 2018 NFL Draft


Over the next several months, the rosters of all 32 teams will begin to take shape for the 2018 season. In this series, writers and analysts look at the best players available via free agency or the NFL Draft at the following positions: quarterback, running back, wide receiver, defensive back, pass rusher. Today, Gil Brandt looks at the top 10 pass rushers worth pursuing.

1) Demarcus Lawrence, free agent

Yes, Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones just said Dallas plans to franchise Lawrence if the two sides can't come to a long-term agreement. But until that's official, the Pro Bowler will top this list. The former second-round pick had an uneven first three NFL seasons, complicated by back issues that required two surgeries, along with a four-game suspension in 2016. But in 2017, Lawrence exploded for 14.5 sacks, tied for second-most in the NFL. He also became the first Cowboys player to post three multi-sack games in a season since Jason Hatcher in 2013, and the first Cowboy to notch three sacks in one game since DeMarcus Ware in 2011. Still just 25, Lawrence has the strength and quickness to be an outstanding pass rusher for years to come.

2) Ezekiel Ansah, free agent

Ansah's past production is a mixed bag. After a Pro Bowl campaign in 2015 in which he recorded a career-high 14.5 sacks, he posted just 2.0 in 2016, then rallied to notch 12.0 in 2017 -- although nine of those came in just three games, including six over his last two. Injuries have been an issue. Still, he's early enough in his career that he has a good chance to establish himself as a reliable pass-rushing force. It helps that he can stop the run, too. The Lions might yet use the franchise tag to keep him in Detroit for 2018, but if he hits the market, his potential makes him an enticing option.

3) Bradley Chubb, draft prospect

Chubb will probably be the first defensive lineman selected in the 2018 NFL Draft, thanks to his pass-rush ability. Chubb -- who notched double-digit sacks and 20-plus tackles for loss in each of his past two seasons -- leaves N.C. State as the school record-holder in career sacks (26.0) and tackles for loss (60.0). After four years in college, the first-team All-American is ready to step into an NFL lineup and be a defensive star right away.

4) Arden Key, draft prospect

Before the 2017 season, Key took a leave of absence from LSU and underwent shoulder surgery. He lost time due to the shoulder plus a knee injury and finger surgery, and he ended up with just four sacks in eight games. All that said, he has everything you want in a pass rusher, including speed and length. He's coming out of a strong program and is quite advanced, in my opinion.

5) Trent Murphy, free agent

The second-round pick in 2014 posted nine sacks in 2016 opposite Ryan Kerrigan in Washington, but he lost the entirety of the final season on his rookie contract after suffering a torn ACL last August. While Murphy is more of a complementary player than someone who can anchor a defensive attack, he's a solid pass rusher, good at reaching the quarterback. His value might be impacted by the injury, but he's still attractive as a supplementary piece.

6) Julius Peppers, free agent

Yes, Peppers will be 39 by the time Super Bowl LIII rolls around -- but his ability to rush the passer and create turnovers in a situational capacity still merits his placement here on the list, even above players who are 10-plus years his junior. Though Peppers played just 50 percent of the Panthers' defensive snaps in 2017, he logged 11.0 sacks, tied for 11th-most in the league. Scott Fowler wrote in the Charlotte Observer that Peppers -- who recently underwent shoulder surgery -- likely "will either play for Carolina or retire." But if, for some reason, Peppers becomes available to sign, other teams should explore the possibility of adding him. This speaks not only to Peppers' ability but also to the relatively underwhelming nature of the pass-rush talent on offer this year.

7) Marcus Davenport, draft prospect

Davenport has tremendous upside, to the point that he might be drafted a bit early -- he has a chance to become a really great player. Told that he was too skinny coming out of high school, Davenport landed at Texas-San Antonio, where he proceeded to set school marks in tackles for loss (38.0) and sacks (22.0) in four years. At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, he has room to grow, but the potential is tantalizing.

8) Adrian Clayborn, free agent

Clayborn had a career-high 9.5 sacks with the Falcons in 2017, but that figure was largely reliant on a single six-sack outing against a Cowboys team that was without Tyron Smith at the time. He's a solid defender who will also help against the run, but I'm not sure he's a starter -- I think he's more like a rotational player who can help fortify a passing defense.

9) Harold Landry, draft prospect

Landry led the nation with 16.5 sacks for Boston College in 2016, tacking on 22.0 tackles for loss, one interception and seven forced fumbles. An ankle injury cost him several games in 2017, with his stat totals -- 5.0 sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss -- sagging accordingly. Still, I think he has the unique ability to be an excellent pass rusher.

10) Sam Hubbard, draft prospect

His career sack total (17.0) might not wow you, but don't be fooled -- Hubbard will be a good pass rusher in the NFL. Among the defensive linemen, he looks like a prime sleeper candidate to me. Hubbard, a first-team Academic All-American in 2016, was on track to play lacrosse at Notre Dame before a fateful crossing-of-paths with Ohio State coach Urban Myer at Hubbard's high school.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.



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