It's time to break out a new one: Pass rushers. These are the guys we want for 2012 -- no historical achievement awards.
With the exception of Ware, this is a "new generation" type of list. Matthews and Ware have strong arguments as the best 3-4 outside linebacker pass rushers. Miller almost plays his own position; no one has been more disruptive over the last month.
Watt is an MVP candidate and gets extra credit for creating so much pressure from an interior position. Wake might be the most underrated player in football. Using Pro Football Focus' numbers, no pass rusher has more combined sacks, QB hits and hurries. (Miller is second.) JPP started the season slower as a pass rusher, but he's a dominant run stuffer. I just couldn't leave him off this list. He'd be my No. 1 overall draft pick of any defender in the league.
Allen and Peppers might not be playing at the highest level of their careers, but they're still big difference makers. Peppers lines up inside a lot. Smith certainly has avoided a sophomore slump in San Francisco. Like Watt, Atkins receives credit for getting pressure up the middle. Johnson makes a lot of money from the Carolina Panthers, but he has been worth it. He has 10 sacks and 32 hurries. Only Wake and Miller have more combined sacks, hits and hurries. The Atlanta Falcons were out-bid for Johnson and settled for Ray Edwards in 2011 free agency. Whoops.
Abraham is ageless and has proven to be one of the best free-agent signings ever. Mathis has looked comfortable in Chuck Pagano's scheme when healthy. Dumervil isn't in Von Miller's league, but he's still very effective. Jones has proven to be a great pick by the New England Patriots; they needed a player like him. Houston and Hali have both been a little inconsistent at times this year, but they are very talented. Washington makes it as the inside linebacker we'd most want to send on a blitz.
There's no reason why Woodley shouldn't rebound down the stretch. He normally would be a tier or two above. Mario Williams has not been a difference-maker in Buffalo. The same goes with Suh in Detroit. Avril hasn't help his free-agent stock this year. Cole has long been one of the most underrated players in the league. He has 10 QB hits, so he's not far from getting sacks. Kerrigan is a guy getting a ton of pressures without quite getting to the quarterback. Freeney might be better off in a different system.
These guys have out-played the group above overall. Dunlap and Johnson probably are the most overlooked duo in the league. Irvin will climb this list fast once he plays more snaps. Clemons has proven to be a huge bargain in Seattle. Every time I watch the 49ers, I think Brooks is better than people realize. Campbell is more of a run-stuffer, but he is a Pro Bowl-caliber player.
Wimbley and Morgan steadily have been improving in Tennessee, even if the sack totals don't show up. Bennett always shows up as a difference maker on film in Tampa Bay. Hardy is getting a lot better in Carolina. It's good to see Kyle Williams healthy again. The Minnesota Vikings made the right choice with Robison over Ray Edwards.
It felt weird to leave these guys off the list, but they haven't been impact players in 2012 yet. We'd expect that to change.