There are a variety of ways to build a top defense, but one common denominator exists on fearsome units: the presence of a ferocious pass rush.
Whereas most teams would love for that rush to be generated from a balanced defensive front that features multiple pass rushers along the line, the vast majority of teams build around one special rusher who can single-handedly dominate the game off the edge. An elite rusher's ability to create pressure from the backside quickens the clock in the quarterback's head and forces the opposition to revamp its blocking schemes to prevent disruption.
However, schematic adjustments are unable to account for the special skills that these pass-rushing phenoms possess, as most continue to thrive despite facing a steady diet of chips and double teams off the edge. Blessed with superior athleticism or exceptional strength and power, these game-changers excel at getting to the quarterback and creating havoc upon their arrival.
Whether operating as 3-4 hybrids or 4-3 situational rushers, the elite at this position are the pivotal players on their respective squads, and every defensive coordinator in the league covets having one of these playmakers at their disposal.
With production and game-changing ability used as critical factors, here is one man's look at the league's top edge rushers:
1. DeMarcus Ware, LB, Cowboys
The three-time Pro Bowler has been a terror off the edge in the Cowboys' ultra-aggressive 3-4 scheme. Using an explosive first step and a dazzling array of pass-rush moves, Ware has amassed 53.5 sacks in a four-year span, including a league-best 20 last season. With an ever-improving set of rush skills that have made him seemingly impossible to block, Ware has become the standard by which pass rushers are measured.
The skillful technician with a non-stop motor has repeatedly outworked opponents off the edge on his way to 30 sacks over the past two seasons. Whereas other rushers might possess more natural ability, Allen's relentlessness has enabled him to tally more sacks (57.5) than any other player in the league since 2004.
3. Julius Peppers, DE, Panthers
The Panthers' franchise player has been a pass-rushing marvel during his first seven seasons in the league. He has recorded double-digit sack totals five times, and he set a new career high with 14.5 in 2008. Though some view the four-time Pro Bowler as an enigmatic talent who fails to consistently deliver big games, Peppers' 70.5 career sacks are an accurate reflection of his dominance since entering the league in 2002.
4. Mario Williams, DE, Texans
After enduring an injury-plagued rookie season, Williams has quickly ascended to the ranks of the elite in just three seasons. As a big, athletic rusher with an expanding repertoire of pass-rush moves, Williams has tallied 22 sacks in his past 23 games and developed into the dominant force that the Texans envisioned when they surprisingly selected him with the first overall draft pick in 2006.
5. Shawne Merriman, LB, Chargers
The three-time Pro Bowler must be included on this list based on his outstanding production during his first three seasons. Merriman has amassed 39.5 career sacks, including a league-leading 17 in 2006. As an explosive power rusher with strength, he routinely overwhelms blockers off the edge on the way to pummeling quarterbacks from the backside. Though Merriman missed most of 2008 because of a knee injury, few rushers rival his impact or production when he is on the field.