2019 NFL season: Aaron Donald headlines top 10 pass rushers

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Five-time Pro Bowl defensive end J.J. Watt was revealed at No. 12 on NFL Network's "Top 100 Players of 2019" on Tuesday night. With the three-time Defensive Player of the Year in mind, NFL Network analyst and former All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas ranks the league's top 10 pass rushers heading into the 2019 NFL season.

1
Aaron Donald
DT
Rams

The reigning back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year has a unique combination of leverage, power and speed that makes him nearly unblockable. Donald plays the defensive tackle position over the guard better than any player in history, and his quickness and reaction to the snap are as good as the league has ever seen. It's no surprise that the Los Angeles superstar led the NFL in sacks (20.5), tackles for loss (25) and quarterback hits (41) in 2018. The scary thing is, the 28-year-old sixth-year pro is just entering his prime.

2
Khalil Mack
OLB
Bears

I played Mack twice in my career, and we used to call him a rolling ball of butcher knives, because he was so explosive, you couldn't slow him down. He's a phenomenal pass rusher -- and if anyone needed more proof of this before he was traded to Chicago last September ... well ... no one is now questioning his ability to wreck run or pass plays after watching him rack up 12.5 sacks, 47 tackles and 10 tackles for loss with the Bears in 2018. He must be double-teamed on pass plays to allow the quarterback time to get the ball out. Unfortunately for opposing offenses, Mack has no problem splitting double teams, getting to the passer and either sacking him or getting a strip sack. The guy is unbelievable.

3
J.J. Watt
DE
Texans

After injuries sidelined him for a majority of the 2016 and '17 seasons, Watt returned to form in 2018 by recording 16 sacks (second in the NFL, only to Aaron Donald). When all is said and done regarding his career, Watt will be remembered for having one of the best swim moves of all time. His motor is unparalleled in today's NFL, and the 30-year-old's unpredictability and effort are what make him one of the greatest defensive ends to ever play the game.

4
Von Miller
OLB
Broncos

The seven-time Pro Bowler's speed, quickness and underrated strength make him a threat on every play. Miller has the rare ability to anticipate and jump the snap count; it's unlike anything I've ever seen from anyone before. He continually keeps offensive tackles off balance by countering or beating them inside. This combination makes the Super Bowl 50 MVP a matchup nightmare no matter the opponent, and it's been this way from the time he entered the league. He has the stats and accolades to prove it, as Miller's logged double-digit sack numbers in all but one of his eight seasons in the NFL (in 2013, when he played just nine games).

5
Myles Garrett
DE
Browns

The former No. 1 overall pick is becoming one of the most productive pass rushers in the league. The 6-foot-4, 272-pound defensive end's an absolute freak when you look at the way he can dip and bend around the corner and underneath the offensive tackle's hands. He has a perfect combination of athleticism, mobility and incredible power to throw a lineman into the quarterback, which makes him a bad matchup whether he's facing someone big and strong or small and athletic on the offensive line. He can also bump inside and play defensive tackle in the passing game. His versatility will give new Browns defensive coordinator Steve Wilks plenty of opportunities to find matchups to exploit.

6
Chris Jones
DT
Chiefs

Jones couldn't be more opposite physically from Aaron Donald, but the 6-6, 310-pound defensive tackle was nearly as productive in 2018. The fourth-year Chief uses athleticism and power to create a fast and steady leg drive to power through blockers -- oftentimes while going against double teams. The way Jones splits double-teams and powers through guards without relying on a counter move reminds me of former Baltimore Ravens defensive end Trevor Pryce, whom I used to play against in the late 2000s. The two players are similar in size and have incredibly consistent power to slice through an offensive line like a bulldozer cuts through dirt.

Another thing that makes Jones so valuable to the Chiefs' defense is how he affects the quarterback regardless of whether he gets a sack or not. Because of his ability to push an offensive lineman back into the passer's lap, which disrupts the quarterback's vision and normal throwing motion, Jones impacts nearly every pass play -- it just might not always register on the stat sheet.

7
Chandler Jones
DE
Cardinals

Entering his eighth NFL season, Jones is a slippery pass rusher who has enjoyed a steady and excellent career -- in New England and Arizona. His production and value often go unnoticed because of the minimal success the Cardinals have had since he joined the team in 2016 (the team has a record of 18-29-1 in that span). The 6-5, 265-pound linebacker has been a beast nonetheless, logging 41 sacks over the last three seasons. Those numbers are all the more impressive considering Arizona has been on the losing end more often than not during Jones' tenure in the desert, meaning opponents tended to run the football in the second half, eliminating opportunities to get to the quarterback. Cardinals opponents have logged 1,617 combined pass attempts since 2016 (tied for 23rd in the NFL) and 1,341 rushing attempts (sixth-most).

8
DeMarcus Lawrence
DE
Cowboys

Since 2017, Lawrence is tied for fourth in the NFL in sacks (25.0), tied for seventh in QB hits (49) and tied for eighth in tackles for loss (29). Lawrence has been the linchpin of the Cowboys' defense. He consistently uses his athleticism to stunt and move along the line, which gives offensive linemen headaches. His effort not only allows him to make plays, but it puts his teammates along the defensive line in good position. His approach and development as a pass rusher have propelled him into the upper echelon of the league. Lawrence has really turned it on over the last two seasons after recording just nine sacks in his first three NFL seasons combined.

9
Joey Bosa
DE
Chargers

Just three years into his young NFL career, Bosa is the most polished pass rusher in the league. He has one of the widest ranges of pass-rush moves, but his most impressive quality is that every single one is effective. Last season, Bosa had just 5.5 sacks after missing the first half of the season with a foot injury. But with 28.5 sacks in 35 NFL games, a healthy Bosa should have no trouble reaching 40 career sacks -- and possibly beyond -- in 2019.

10
Danielle Hunter
DE
Vikings

When watching film of the Minnesota Vikings, it struck me that Hunter's physique is reminiscent of LeBron James with pads. He possesses long arms and legs and has the lower-body power to push offensive linemen back into the quarterback. There is no limit to Hunter's ability, as he has the unique blend of size and athleticism that has put those before him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He can get offensive tackles off balance with his speed, then move quickly to a swim move to counter. Hunter is athletic enough to win matchups rushing the passer or dropping into coverage, making him an asset in any defense. These attributes give him an advantage of unpredictability, which takes his game to another level.

Follow Joe Thomas on Twitter @joethomas73.

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