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.
Kirwan's QB rankings
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.
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.
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.
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.
Suh just warming up
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.
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.