Who will be this season's top sack producers?

Sacking the quarterback isn't the most critical factor when it comes to winning in the NFL, but it is close. And when you break down winning and losing based on statistics, sack production is right up there.

Getting the quarterback on the ground with the football still in his hands stops drives, or makes it extremely difficult to convert. Last year, Jared Allen missed the first two games with Kansas City and still led the league in sacks with 15.5, which translates to more than one a game. Now Allen plays for the Vikings, who were already No. 1 against the run but ranked last in the NFL in pass defense.

Allen is in the perfect storm to lead the NFL in sacks once again. Barring injury, he will play 16 games instead of 14. Last year, the Vikings were thrown at by opponents 646 times, while the Chiefs were subjected to defending just 462 pass attempts (with 56 of those passes coming during Allen's two-game suspension). Thus, Allen only played against 406 pass plays, meaning he recorded one sack every 26 pass rushes. If he keeps up his ratio of 1:26, and teams throw it another 646 against Minnesota this season, he could break the 20-sack line. Kevin Williams and Pat Williams are still inside collapsing the pocket. The same defense that stopped the run so well is back intact, so Allen looks like the odds-on favorite to lead the league in sacks with a big number.

Are there any other candidates who could challenge him for the individual title? There are certain factors that need to be considered.

It usually takes a good pass rusher on the other side of the defensive line to balance up the protection, and it doesn't hurt if a guy is playing on a team that gets leads early and forces opponents into a one-dimensional pass attack. Give a defensive lineman a chance to pin his ears back and go, and the sacks will follow. Patrick Kerney of the Seahawks was the runner-up last year with 14.5 sacks, and he plays on a good team in a division that features Arizona, St. Louis and San Francisco. Last year, Kerney had 9 of his 14.5 sacks within the division, and now Mike Martz is running the 49ers' offense, which means more passing. Kerney rushes from the left end position and he gets to beat right offensive tackles. He will be in the upper echelon again this year.

Right behind Kerney were a pair of young pass rushers with 14 sacks each. DeMarcus Ware plays in the Cowboys' aggressive 3-4 package, while Mario Williams is featured in the Texans' 4-3 defense. Ware will get plenty of opportunities because the Cowboys force teams to throw the ball, especially late in games when they have leads. Williams is an even more impressive story when you consider the Texans struggle to win games and the supporting cast around him is average. Williams is a marked man when teams play the Texans, yet he still gets to the quarterback. Williams didn't make the Pro Bowl last year, but he should have. This year, Williams makes the trip and he should surpass last year's sack total as he just keeps getting better each game.

The Giants' Osi Umenyiora is already out for the season, Denver's Elvis Dumervil isn't 100 percent and neither are Shawne Merriman in San Diego or Jason Taylor in Washington. Michael Strahan retired and Aaron Kampman has lost some of his inside support on the defensive line due to injury and trade. So where are the double-digit sack players to rival Allen, Kerney and the others mentioned?

Shaun Ellis of the Jets had 12.5 sacks last year with little help from his teammates, and now he is joined on the field by newcomers Calvin Pace and Vernon Gholston for passing downs. Ellis also has Brett Favre on the other side of the ball, and that should mean teams playing catch-up more than last year. That translates into more sacks for Ellis.

Justin Tuck is an emerging star for the Giants' fire-zone scheme, and he has to pick up the slack left by the departure of Strahan and Umenyiora, who had 22 sacks between them while Tuck picked up 10. Tuck is capable of reaching the area of 14-15 sacks this season if defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo gets that scheme cranking. He got off to a good start with one sack against the Redskins in the season opener.

An interesting guy to keep an eye on is the Redskins' Andre Carter. He had 10.5 sacks last year with little to no help from the opposite defensive end. Jason Taylor will be on the field, and whenever Taylor is healthy you can bet the protections will slide to him rather than Carter as they have in the past. Carter will get more single-blocking situations than he has had in the past and his sack total should go up.

Finally, keep your eye on four players whose numbers should go up significantly this season. The Saints' Will Smith has a new coach, Ed Orgeron, who will push him to get after the passer. The Saints will score points this year and the addition of Sedrick Ellis inside and a better conditioned Charles Grant makes the Saints' four-man rush better.

Dwight Freeney only played in nine games for the Colts last year and is finally healthy. He was an elite pass rusher before his injuries and will return to his old form.

In Cleveland, the Browns spent a lot of money to fix the defensive front, adding run-stuffers Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams in the middle. That sets up well for Kamerion Wimbley to rush from the outside, and he should surpass his rookie production from two years ago when he had 11 sacks.

Last but not least is Julius Peppers, who simply had a down season last year and was highly criticized. After watching him in camp this summer, there is little doubt he is playing for a big payday and switching over to the right defensive end spot will help with his production.

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