Take a moment to think of the biggest names in football and the positions they play.
The first answer is easy: Quarterback. A team goes as its quarterback goes.
The second answer, though, might be different depending on who you ask. Some might say wide receiver, and others might lean toward cornerback or left tackle.
But one position group has taken on increased importance in the last half decade or so, which only makes sense when considering the rise of the passing game. Where should opponents invest their resources? In those who hunt the quarterback.
We’ve seen these players — defensive ends and outside linebackers, depending on the defensive scheme — essentially evolve into their own classification: edge rushers. They’re responsible for wreaking havoc and sending future Hall of Famers home empty handed in the sport’s biggest contests. Think back to the 2015 campaign, when Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware knocked Tom Brady out of sorts in the AFC Championship Game. Or think about last season, when the Patriots had Sam Darnold seeing ghosts.
They’re effective. They matter. And they aren’t just on the edge of defenses (hello, Aaron Donald).
So, who were the greatest disruptors of 2019?
Like we did in our earlier (and debate-inspiring) pieces from this series, we’re focusing on one Next Gen Stat that gives us the best indication of how effective a defender is on a per-pass-rushing-down basis. The stat: Disruption Rate, which is the total number of disruptions (the combined total of hurries, pressures or sacks, with only one counting per play) divided by the total number of pass-rush snaps.
In order to get a decent grasp of effectiveness over a considerable volume of pass rushes, we set the baseline at 250 pass rush snaps. Those who didn’t rush the passer at least 250 times in 2019 didn’t make the cut.
These are the best of those who did.
Disruption rate: 18.5%. Sack rate: 3.5%. Total disruptions: 53. Sacks: 10.
Garrett played in just 10 games, as the indefinite suspension that resulted from his actions during Cleveland’s Thursday night affair with Pittsburgh brought his season to an end, but he had been performing to the level of a former No. 1 overall pick until that point. Cleveland’s pass rush suffered a drastic dropoff in effectiveness after his departure. The Browns had a 32.9 percent pressure rate with Garrett on the field in 2019; without him, that figure dropped to 21.5 percent.
Garrett’s disruption rate was the best in the NFL. He registered a pressure on 17.1 percent of dropbacks in 2019, which was the highest percentage posted by a player since the 2016 season. He also became one of just three players to post a pressure rate of 12 percent or higher in each of the last three seasons. The other two: Aaron Donald and Von Miller. With each Browns contest, there was a moment or two in which a quarterback would hit the turf and there’d be only one word to say in response: Myles.
Green Bay Packers
Disruption rate: 17.5%. Sack rate: 2.8%. Total disruptions: 84. Sacks: 13.5.
Smith’s disruption total is higher because, in part, he played a full season, but his performance is almost on par with that of Garrett. Smith was the face of a turnaround for the Packers defense, providing immediate returns on the lucrative free-agent deal he inked last offseason. He was a menace, pressuring the QB on 19.4 percent of pass rushes when aligned on the interior. That rate was the highest among all defenders rushing from the interior (minimum 100 interior pass rushes), leading second-place finisher Stephon Tuitt (14.1 percent) by more than 5 percentage points. Smith was second in overall pressure percentage at 14.8 percent, trailing only Garrett. He and Packers DT Kenny Clark combined for 120 QB pressures last season, the most by any teammate duo in the NFL.
Smith is officially in the category of the elite, and luckily for him, he’s being paid as such.
Disruption rate: 17.2%. Sack rate: 3.3%. Total disruptions: 60. Sacks: 11.5.
Robert Quinn was well worth the price Dallas paid to acquire him last offseason, even if it was only as a one-year rental, and he’s set to make the money he deserves after signing a five-year deal with the Chicago Bears in March. Quinn enjoyed great success with the Cowboys while operating opposite DeMarcus Lawrence, pressuring the QB on 14 percent of pass rushes, the third-best rate in the NFL (minimum 250 pass rushes) in 2019. His ability to bend while maintaining speed and power around the edge can be a nightmare for opposing tackles, and he’ll likely enjoy similar success as part of another excellent tandem in Chicago in 2020. Quinn registered 49 QB pressures in 2019, which is the same number his new Bears teammate Khalil Mack posted, but Quinn did it on 116 fewer pass rushes. Watch out for that duo.
San Francisco 49ers
Disruption rate: 16.4%. Sack rate: 2.1%. Total disruptions: 71. Sacks: 9.
By now, you know this story. Bosa was the final piece for a defensive line loaded with first-round talent, which helped the 49ers reach the Super Bowl. The Pro Bowl selectee and 2019 Defensive Rookie of the Year earned his accolades, racking up the fourth-most QB pressures in the NFL (60) while finishing with a pressure percentage of 13.9, which was also good for fourth-best in the league. Bosa is just getting started, and boy, what a way to begin a pro career.
Disruption rate: 16.2%. Sack rate: 3.1%. Total disruptions: 54. Sacks: 10.5.
Oh, look! It’s another youngster! It’s unrealistic to say Allen didn’t benefit from playing on a defense that also included Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue, so 2020 figures to be a tougher test for him, with Campbell now a Raven and Ngakoue, who has yet to sign his franchise tag as of this writing, wanting out of town. Allen had quite a debut, though. Joining Bosa as a rookie Pro Bowl selectee, Allen used his athleticism and length to his advantage in 2019. His 10.5 sacks on 54 total disruptions places him among some of the most effective rushers in the NFL, but it also sets him up to receive more attention from offenses in 2020. We’ll see if he can keep the same pace.
Los Angeles Rams
Disruption rate: 15.7%. Sack rate: 2.5%. Total disruptions: 90. Sacks: 12.5.
Sixth?! Aaron Donald is sixth on this list?! I can hear it now and I understand your grief, so spare my Twitter mentions. Donald played more total snaps (882) than anyone else on this list, so it’s inevitable that his disruption rate is going to be slightly lower. We’re ranking these players with disruption rate taking precedence over everything else, so that’s why he ranks in the bottom half. But it was also a surprise to me when I started to pore over these stats following the conclusion of the regular season to see someone else (Za’Darius Smith) had actually registered more disruptions than Donald, who usually dominates that category on an annual basis. Donald is still supremely effective, and his 267 QB pressures since 2016 are the most in the NFL in that span. His 69 QB pressures were second most in the NFL in 2019, and his pressure percentage (13.5%) was the highest among interior linemen with a minimum of 300 pass rushes (a key difference in baseline than that of Smith, who played on the interior less frequently than Donald). The five-time All-Pro is still fantastic and an absolute nightmare to stop. Don’t take his ranking here as me saying anything less.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Disruption rate: 15.4%. Sack rate: 3.8%. Total disruptions: 78. Sacks: 19.5.
Ah, yes, allow us to roll out the red (and pewter) carpet for the NFL’s 2019 sack king. Barrett’s ascension from afterthought in Denver to premier hunter of quarterbacks was astonishing — I mean, he had 5.5 more sacks in 16 games last year than he did in 61 games with the Broncos. His 78 total disruptions paint a picture of a defender who was constantly causing problems for opposing offenses, and he capitalized on such opportunities more often than anyone else on this list, as evidenced by his sack total and sack rate. No wonder Bruce Arians basically guaranteed the Buccaneers would find a way to keep him.
Like Donald, Barrett also played a ton of snaps (836, including 508 pass rushes), bringing his overall disruption rate down a tad. That’s a number you can look at in two different ways, though — a larger sample size is nearly always going to bring a player’s success rate down, but conversely, more pass rushes means more opportunities. Just a little food for thought before you get to typing.
New England Patriots
Disruption rate: 15%. Sack rate: 2.2%. Total disruptions: 38. Sacks: 5.5.
This is the point in the ranking where we quietly wonder whether the baseline might be a little too low (Hightower just barely crosses the threshold with 253 pass rushes), but only because the Patriots linebacker isn’t usually one of the first names that come to mind when mulling pass rushers. He’s a disruptor, though, and a key piece of a New England defense that was historically effective in the first half of the 2019 season. Hightower leads all the players on this list in tackles, with 71, and is fourth in stops (tackles that result in a successful play for the defense based on yards to go by down), with 33, while also recording five hustle stops (defensive stops where the player covers 20-plus yards of in-play distance from snap to tackle). His pass-rushing stats aren’t the gaudiest, but they’re quite impressive when considering his typical starting point on the field before each snap.
Disruption rate: 14.5%. Sack rate: 1.4%. Total disruptions: 41. Sacks: 4.
Clayborn, who signed with the Browns this offseason, had more sacks in one game in 2017 than he had in all of 2019, but that only illustrates how incomplete sacks are as a stat. Clayborn was an effective player for the Falcons’ defense last year by making the most of the pass-rushing snaps he was afforded, recording 35 QB pressures on just 282 pass rushes. Those pressures, plus his 24 hurries, comprise the backbone of his higher disruption rate.
Look, do I feel great about Clayborn making this list over guys like Chandler Jones, Joey Bosa or Cameron Heyward (to name a few)? Absolutely not. But his disruption rate wasn’t far off from Myles Garrett’s with a similar number of pass rushes. The numbers tell the story here. I’m just the messenger.
Disruption rate: 14.4%. Sack rate: 1.9%. Total disruptions: 60. Sacks: 8.
Surprised? We are too, a little. Miller posted his first single-digit sack season since 2013 and only recorded 46 tackles. While not as dominant as he’s been for much of his career, Miller still made an impact over the stretch of his 791 total defensive snaps in 2019. His 52 QB pressures were 29 more than the next closest Bronco (Derek Wolfe), proving the three-time All-Pro was still the man in Denver. And it’s an achievement for Miller, who turned 31 in March, to remain one of the league’s most efficient disruptors, posting a better rate than the likes of Joey Bosa (14.0%), DeMarcus Lawrence (13.9%), Yannick Ngakoue (13.8%) and T.J. Watt (13.4%). A closing note on Miller’s success over the last four seasons: His 235 QB pressures since 2016 lead all edge defenders and are second in the NFL only to Aaron Donald. His QB pressure rate during that same span (14%) ranks No. 1 across the league (min. 1,000 pass rushes).