NFL Medalists

Best NFL pass rushers heading into 2021 season? Analysts reveal gold, silver, bronze picks

In honor of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, we're highlighting the best of the best across the NFL. Heading into the 2021 season, who are the premium players in five marquee areas: quarterback, running back, wide receiver, pass rusher and cornerback? Twenty-five analysts individually ranked their top three in each category, and then we tallied all of the votes via this simple formula:

Each first-place vote: 3 points
Each second-place vote: 2 points
Each third-place vote: 1 point

Below, you'll find the pass rusher podium -- highlighting the gold, silver and bronze medalists from our accumulated ballots -- as well as additional intel on the position. Check back all week as this series continues.

THE PASS RUSHER PODIUM

GOLD
Aaron Donald
Los Angeles Rams · DL

Total points: 68 (1st: 20; 2nd: 3; 3rd: 2)


Marc Sessler: Aaron Donald has come from another dimension, leaving word-spinners short on fresh poetry to describe a defensive tackle who's outshined all pure pass rushers to earn six All-Pro selections and three DPOY nods as the NFL's most dominant on-field human. Leading the league in pressures again last season, the beating heart of the Rams' defense has permanently reset the bar for interior behemoths. We're accustomed to seeing him wipe out double and triple teams to create chaos, but let's agree to never take Donald for granted: He's been shipped to us from the Gods.

SILVER
Myles Garrett
Cleveland Browns · DE

Total points: 32 (1st: 2; 2nd: 9; 3rd: 8)


Joe Thomas: Myles Garrett is the best pass rusher in the NFL not named Aaron Donald. He has the best combination of complementary pass-rush moves in the game and speed-to-power that is unrivaled in the NFL. The 6-foot-4, 272-pounder has lower body flexibility like a player half his size and forces even the most athletic tackles into uncompromising positions, where he can beat them at will.

BRONZE
T.J. Watt
Pittsburgh Steelers · OLB

Total points: 28 (1st: 1; 2nd: 9; 3rd: 7)


Nick Shook: T.J. Watt landed atop my list of the league's top disruptors of 2020, ahead of Donald (sixth) and Garrett (fourth), and he got there by leading the league in total disruptions (80), disruption rate (18.4 percent) and sacks (15), all despite also sitting out in Week 17. But he gets a bronze medal here because if isolated, I'd still select Donald -- the reigning Defensive Player of the Year -- and Garrett before Watt. There's a reasonable explanation for this, too: Watt enjoyed the company of fellow edge rusher Bud Dupree for a good portion of the 2020 season, and when Dupree exited due to a season-ending injury, Watt's numbers declined dramatically, dipping from a 19 percent pressure rate with Dupree to less than 10 percent without him. That's far from the consistent production seen from Garrett (before he was affected by COVID-19 in 2020) and Donald, so Watt lands third in an elite trio, because while he's been unquestionably effective in the last couple of years, there's still a lingering question of how effective he'd be as the sole significant rusher.

Also receiving votes: Khalil Mack, Chicago Bears (11 total points); Joey Bosa, Los Angeles Chargers (3); Chase Young, Washington Football Team (3); Chandler Jones, Arizona Cardinals (2); Nick Bosa, San Francisco 49ers (1); Cam Jordan, New Orleans Saints (1); Von Miller, Denver Broncos (1).

INSIGHTS INTO THE PASS RUSH VOTING

  • Nine pass rushers received at least one vote this year. The 2016 edition of this exercise was separated into two files: edge rusher (nine players received votes) and interior defensive line (12).
  • Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack, Chandler Jones and Von Miller are the only pass rushers who made it onto a ballot this year and when we gave out medals in 2016. Donald and Miller snagged gold medals and Mack took home the bronze, respectively, five years ago, while Chandler Jones was the only other pass rusher to receive votes this year and back in '16.
  • The average pass rusher age on each voter's ballot this year: 27.5 years old. Von Miller is the oldest at 32, while Chase Young is the youngest at 22.
  • Thirteen of the 25 voters had some combination of Donald, Garrett and Watt on the ballot.

PASS RUSH RECORD HOLDERS

SINGLE SEASON

CAREER

FASCINATING PASS RUSH STATS FROM NFL RESEARCH

  • Nine of the 2020 season's top-10 sack leaders are currently under the age of 30. Aaron Donald turned 30 in May.
  • The 2020 season featured just three AFC players with 10-plus sacks, all of whom play in the AFC North: T.J. Watt (15), Myles Garrett (12) and Pittsburgh's Stephon Tuitt (11).
  • Of the 19 players with at least nine sacks in the 2020 season, 13 were drafted in the first round.
  • The last player to lead the NFL in sacks in consecutive seasons was Hall of Famer Reggie White, in 1987 and 1988 with the Philadelphia Eagles. T.J. Watt led the NFL with 15.0 sacks in 2020.
  • Since 2006, when the NFL began officially tracking QB hits, J.J. Watt has each of the top four single-season QB hit totals of any player: 51 in 2014, 50 in 2015, 46 in 2013 and 43 in 2012. His brother, T.J., had 41 QB hits in 2020 (T-fifth-most in a season).
  • Fastest average pass rush get off since 2019 (Next Gen Stats): .72 seconds, T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree
  • Top speed reached by a pass rusher since 2018 (Next Gen Stats): 21.44 mph, Robert Quinn (Tajae Sharpe 17-yard reception vs. Tennessee in Week 1 of 2018)

INDIVIDUAL BALLOTS

Table inside Article
Voter Gold Silver Bronze
Judy Battista Aaron Donald T.J. Watt Myles Garrett
Jeremy Bergman Aaron Donald T.J. Watt Myles Garrett
Ali Bhanpuri Aaron Donald T.J. Watt Myles Garrett
Tom Blair Aaron Donald Myles Garrett T.J. Watt
Gil Brandt Aaron Donald Myles Garrett T.J. Watt
Kyle Brandt Myles Garrett Joey Bosa Aaron Donald
Nate Burleson Aaron Donald T.J. Watt Chase Young
David Carr Aaron Donald Chase Young Khalil Mack
Brooke Cersosimo Aaron Donald Myles Garrett Khalil Mack
Jeffri Chadiha Aaron Donald T.J. Watt Myles Garrett
Gennaro Filice Aaron Donald Myles Garrett T.J. Watt
Cynthia Frelund Aaron Donald Myles Garrett Cam Jordan
Chase Goodbread T.J. Watt Aaron Donald Joey Bosa
Marcas Grant Aaron Donald Myles Garrett Khalil Mack
Maurice Jones-Drew Aaron Donald Khalil Mack Myles Garrett
Dan Parr Myles Garrett T.J. Watt Aaron Donald
Kevin Patra Aaron Donald T.J. Watt Myles Garrett
Adam Rank Khalil Mack Aaron Donald T.J. Watt
Marc Ross Khalil Mack Aaron Donald T.J. Watt
Marc Sessler Aaron Donald T.J. Watt Myles Garrett
Nick Shook Aaron Donald Myles Garrett T.J. Watt
Joe Thomas Aaron Donald Myles Garrett T.J. Watt
LaDainian Tomlinson Aaron Donald Myles Garrett Von Miller
Jim Trotter Aaron Donald Chandler Jones Nick Bosa
Lance Zierlein Aaron Donald T.J. Watt Myles Garrett

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