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Vets still rank as top pass rushers but young faces closing gap

Quarterback is the most important position on the field, but the men who rush the passer are a close second.

Pass rushers are hard to find, with the great ones usually forced to beat two players to get to the QB. If the best rushers sack a quarterback 10 times in 300 pass rushes that's considered good. In baseball, if you get a hit three out of every 10 tries you are called an excellent hitter. Conversely, a sack every 30 pass rushes is an accomplishment.

While sacks are vital, pressures, having a complementary player on the opposite side, protection schemes and consistency were also factors in ranking the top 25 pass rushers. However, defending the run was not factored into the process.

As I have done with the other positional rankings, the players are in groups of five and in alphabetical order inside each tier. Every pass rusher listed either has an (^) for guys on the rise, (>) for players maintaining their status or (v) for those on the decline.

Of the pass rushers to make the list, 14 are 4-3 ends, 10 are 3-4 outside linebackers and one is a tackle. Groups C and D are packed with rising stars, many of whom will be in the top 10 a year from now.

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Group A

Jared Allen, 4-3 DE, Vikings (>): He has a non-stop motor and recorded 40 sacks in the last three years. He also defended 13 passes and forced nine fumbles over that span, with most of that production coming while rushing the passer. Only DeMarcus Ware has more sacks (46.5) since 2008.

Dwight Freeney, 4-3 DE, Colts (>): The spin move is his signature and no one does it quite like him. He has 34 sacks over the past three seasons and 10 forced fumbles, which usually come via the strip-sack.

James Harrison, 3-4 OLB, Steelers (>): He is a tremendous fit in the Dick LeBeau's defense and comes after the quarterback with such violence. He has 36.5 sacks since 2008. His 18 forced fumbles and 10 passes defended reminds all of us how relentless he can be when getting after the quarterback.

Julius Peppers, 4-3 DE, Bears (>): Leaving Carolina for Chicago reminds me of when Reggie White left Philadelphia for Green Bay. A premiere pass rusher like Peppers comes along once every five to 10 years. Peppers has 33 sacks and 13 forced fumbles in the last three years, but has played without the benefit of a solid rusher on the opposite side most of that time. In 2010, he led all defensive linemen with nine passes defended.

DeMarcus Ware, 3-4 OLB, Cowboys (>): Ware led the league in sacks in 2008 (20) and again last season (15.5). He now has 80 sacks in 96 games as a pro.

Group B

John Abraham, 4-3 DE, Falcons (>): A more effective pass rusher when he isn't on the field for some of the run down situations. He has 35 sacks since 2008, which is remarkable considering he had only 5.5 during an off year in 2009.

Trent Cole, 4-3 DE, Eagles (>): If the Eagles can bring back a player like Jason Babin, Cole's production will spike. Jared Allen told me he studies Cole's pass-rush moves to improve his own game.

Justin Tuck, 4-3 DE, Giants (>): He can play inside or outside. He has double-digit sacks in three of the past four seasons. He bounced back from a down 2009 with 11.5 sacks and six forced fumbles last year.

Mario Williams, DE/OLB, Texans (>): The big experiment in 2011 is switching Williams from a 4-3 end to a 3-4 outside linebacker. He is losing weight to make the transition and will rush the passer a lot more from a two-point stance rather than down in a three-point stance. His numbers have steadily declined since a career-high 14 sacks in 2007.

LaMarr Woodley, 3-4 OLB, Steelers (>): James Harrison gets most of the notoriety, but Woodley's 35 sacks since 2008 stacks right up there.

Group C

Elvis Dumervil, 4-3 DE, Broncos (>): Even though he missed 2010 with an injury, he was not forgotten. From 2007-09, he had 34.5 sacks with some coming as an end in a 4-3 and the rest as an OLB in the 3-4. He should get back to double-digit sacks in 2011.

Clay Matthews, 3-4 OLB, Packers (^): What can you say about a player who walked on in college, didn't start until his senior year and has 23.5 sacks in just two NFL seasons. He has a great dip and rip move, can be schemed up in many ways in Dom Capers' defense and could be on track for DeMarcus Ware-type numbers.

Robert Mathis, 4-3 DE, Colts (>): The "other" pass rusher in Indy might be undersized, but he has 32 sacks since 2008.

Brian Orakpo, 3-4 OLB, Redskins (^): Like Matthews, Orakpo only has two years under his belt. However, Orakpo has already been in two different defensive schemes and keeps producing (19.5 sacks).

Osi Umenyiora, 4-3 DE, Giants (>): A bit underrated and has a low profile. He does his talking on the field with 31.5 sacks over the past three seasons. He had a league-leading 10 forced fumbles in 2010.

Group D

Tamba Hali, 3-4 OLB, Chiefs (^): The switch to the 3-4 and outside linebacker was just what the doctor ordered to get Hali's game moving in the right direction. He jumped from three sacks in 2008 to 8.5 in 2009 to second in the league in 2010 with 14.5.

Charles Johnson, 4-3 DE, Panthers (^): He could wind up as a free agent when the CBA is done and a number of teams would be interested. He made a big jump last season with 11.5 sacks after recording 10 over his three previous years.

Shaun Phillips, 3-4 OLB, Chargers (^): When Shawne Merriman was injured and later released, Phillips had to pick up the slack and did so. His 11 sacks were impressive considering he was usually the only rush threat on the field.

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Ndamukong Suh, 4-3 DT, Lions (^): He had 10 sacks as a rookie. At times, he looked unstoppable. Suh can overpower an offensive lineman and he will have another big season, especially if opponents don't double him.

Cameron Wake, 3-4 OLB, Dolphins (^): What a steal grabbing him from the Canadian Football League. He finished third in the league with 14 sacks in 2010.

Group E

Jason Babin, 4-3 DE, Titans (>): He was reborn as a Titan after bouncing around the league. He had 12.5 sacks in 2010 after just 17.5 in his first six seasons. At 31, he's looking for one more big contract.

Ray Edwards, 4-3 DE, Vikings (>): A potential free agent with 21.5 sacks over the past three seasons. The question is can he do as well without Jared Allen on the opposite side.

James Hall, 4-3 DE, Rams (>): Hall is a quiet guy just going about his business and some might be surprised he made this list. He had 10.5 sacks last year, which some might classify as a last hurrah, but he does have 21.5 sacks since 2008. First-round pick Robert Quinn could help complement the veteran.

Justin Smith, 3-4 DE, 49ers (v): A lunch-pail guy who works for his sacks. He has 21.5 sacks over the last three seasons and has a lot more pressures and hurries because of effort.

Terrell Suggs, 3-4 OLB, Ravens (>): Had a solid 2010 campaign with 11 sacks, but that was coming off 4.5 sacks in 13 games the prior season. In his first four years in the league, Suggs had 40 sacks and looked like he was well on his way to 100-plus sacks in his career. In the last four years, when he should be in his prime, he only has 28.5.

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