The Vikings locked in another core piece of their defensive foundation last week by inking pass rusher Danielle Hunter to a five-year, $72 million contract extension. It’s a well-earned reward: Hunter has racked up 25.5 sacks in three seasons, and he finished in the top 10 in pressures among 4-3 defensive ends in each of the past two years. The size of the deal, along with the urgency with which the Vikings got it done, underscores Hunter’s status as one of the league’s fastest-rising stars—and one of its best pass rushers under the age of 26.
Minnesota’s precocious edge defender can’t rest on his laurels, though—or all those enormous new paychecks—if he wants to hold onto his place on that list. A handful of other burgeoning young sack-producers across the league will head into 2018 with the talent, skill set, and opportunity to take Hunter’s place. Let’s take a quick look at the numbers and some tape and break down which players age 25 or younger could make up the NFL’s newest generation of superstar pass rushers.
Leaders of the Pack
DE Joey Bosa, Chargers (22)
This one’s a gimme, because let’s be honest: Bosa’s already established himself as a bona fide superstar. He had his game jersey sent to the Pro Football Hall of Fame after becoming the first player in league history to notch 19 sacks through his first 20 games, and his 23 career sacks through 28 games rank eighth-most all time. He finished seventh in the league last year with 12.5 sacks, adding four forced fumbles, and he ranked third among 4-3 defensive ends in both pressures (75) and quarterback hurries (51), per Pro Football Focus. Bosa has it all: elite size (6-foot-5, 280 pounds) to go with power, quickness, agility, and a solid repertoire of pass-rush moves.
And two months before the season starts, Bosa already looks like an early favorite for the 2018 Defensive Player of the Year Award.
OLB/DE Jadeveon Clowney, Texans (25)
Clowney may not have lived up to the massive hype he carried into the 2014 draft—where he was taken first overall—but he’s developed into an incredibly disruptive player nonetheless. He notched 9.5 sacks, 64 pressures (tied for sixth among 3-4 OLBs), and two forced fumbles last year, and he basically lived in opposing backfields, racking up 21 tackles for loss—second most in the league. The 6-foot-5, 270-pound playmaker does a little bit of everything on the Texans’ defensive front because of his rare combination of length, athleticism, and strength.
Clowney has increased his sack total in each of the past three seasons, and this year, playing alongside a healthy J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus, he could reach double-digits for the first time in his career. That’d certainly help him earn a major contract extension with Houston or big money on the open market.
Not Far Behind
DE Yannick Ngakoue, Jaguars (23)
Ngakoue toiled in the shadow of a variety of bigger stars (like Calais Campbell and Malik Jackson) during his first two years in Jacksonville, quietly totaling 20 sacks in 32 career games with a combined 10 forced fumbles. He pairs an explosive first step with the ability to turn the corner and has developed a very effective cross-chop move to get past opposing tackles.
Ngakoue’s still playing on a star-studded defensive line, but if he keeps producing like he has in his first two years, it’s going to be pretty tough to continue to underrate the third-year pro.
DL DeForest Buckner, 49ers (24)
Buckner finished second among defensive tackles in pressures last year (52), per PFF, while notching three sacks, 19 quarterback hits (tops at the position), and 29 quarterback hurries (sixth). At 6-foot-7 and 300 pounds, there are few linemen with a better combination of length and first-step speed at the snap. As offensive linemen look to grab hold of Buckner, he often leaves them lunging, drawing on his excellent agility to sideswipe the block and move upfield. Oh, and he’s got a pretty devastating arm-over swim move, too.
DL Chris Jones, Chiefs (24)
Maybe it’s because of his exceedingly generic name, but Jones still doesn’t get the hype he deserves. He posted 6.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, seven pass deflections, and an interception for the Chiefs last year, giving the team a pass-rushing boost it badly needed.
Jones was especially effective late in the season when defensive coordinator Bob Sutton moved the big defensive lineman around more frequently, even playing him on the edge at times. After losing 25 pounds this offseason, he’s now leaner and ready to wreak havoc from every spot on the Chiefs’ defensive line in 2018.
OLB Preston Smith, Redskins (25)
Smith’s flown under a lot of fans’ radars despite three years of solid production, including 20.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, 10 passes defended, and three picks in 48 career games for the Redskins. He recorded eight sacks last year and finished first in pressure rate among defenders with 200-plus pass-rush plays, using his explosiveness off the edge, skill with the long-arm move, and the ability to swat away block attempts to get to the quarterback.
Smith notched 14 quarterback hits last year, per PFF, which tied with Clowney for second behind Arizona’s Chandler Jones among 3-4 outside linebackers. If he can turn a few more of those hits into sacks, he’ll make a big jump in national name recognition.
DE Frank Clark, Seahawks (25)
Clark played behind Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril for most of the past two seasons, but quietly produced 19.0 sacks and four forced fumbles in a rotational role. Now, with Avril gone and Bennett in Philly, Clark inherits the role of the Seahawks’ lead pass rusher—an opportunity that should signal a jump in production.
The fourth-year pro mixes speed and power as a rusher; he can rush inside on one play, and on the next, explode off the edge with pure acceleration.
Now, with Clark set to enter his contract year, the Seahawks will have to decide whether to offer him a long-term extension—which may not be as straightforward a decision as his stats would suggest. Clark was arrested in 2014 on charges of domestic violence and he was dismissed from the Michigan football team (he eventually pled guilty to disorderly conduct in a plea agreement). Then, in the spring of last year, he tweeted disparaging remarks at Bleacher Report’s Natalie Weiner, who had previously written about the incident. Additionally, Clark was kicked out of Seahawks practice in 2017 for punching teammate Germain Ifedi.
Ready to Break Out
DE Carl Lawson, Bengals (23)
With Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, and Michael Johnson all set to enter contract years, the future of the Bengals’ pass rush is in limbo. But regardless of what happens with that veteran trio, the team knows it’s got Lawson waiting to grab hold of the baton. With a quick first step, strength to fight through blocks, and the motor to finish, the Auburn product racked up 8.5 sacks in his rookie campaign while collecting 59 pressures, good for eighth among all 3-4 linebackers, per PFF.
DE Matt Ioannidis, Redskins (24)
First, let’s just start with this:
I have never seen Gabe abused with pure power like this. Who is #98 Matt Ioannidis ? pic.twitter.com/8kO881MkVs— Safe Gipsy (@GipsySafety) September 25, 2017
Now onto the stats: In just his second season last year, Ioannidis grabbed 4.5 sacks and a forced fumble, racking up 46 pressures—tied for fifth among 3-4 ends in 2017. Don’t be surprised if you hear his name called a lot more next season.
DE Derek Barnett, Eagles (22)
Barnett made the most of limited opportunities as a rookie, and he still managed to record five sacks and a forced fumble while playing in a rotation behind Brandon Graham, Chris Long, and Vinny Curry.
Barnett’s going to have to fight for snaps again in 2018, but Curry’s gone and Long and Bennett aren’t getting any younger. Expect his production to increase along with his role in the pass-rush rotation.
OLB Leonard Floyd, Bears (25)
The 6-foot-6 251-pounder missed chunks of his first two seasons due to injury, but he still recorded 11.5 sacks in his first 22 games and mixed in a pair of safeties along the way.
Now, Floyd heads into his third season with plenty of pressure on his shoulders as the team’s top (read: only) real edge rusher. A healthy Floyd has the talent to explode in 2018, and that’s something the Bears’ depleted edge-rushing group desperately needs him to do.
OLB Matt Judon, Ravens (25)
Judon will turn 26 before the season begins, but let’s not let a mere technicality keep him off this list. The Ravens’ underrated outside linebacker racked up eight sacks, two forced fumbles, and three pass deflections last year, totaling 17 tackles for a loss—tied for fourth most league-wide. Even on plays where he wasn’t credited with a stat, he made his presence felt:
Now 35, Terrell Suggs can’t play forever. Judon’s got a prime chance to take over as the Ravens’ premier edge rusher.
OLB T.J. Watt, Steelers (23)
Watt posted a solid stat line his rookie campaign, netting seven sacks, one forced fumble, and a pick, and he demonstrated a few of the qualities that we’ve come to expect from a player with that family name: strong fundamental technique, athleticism, and hustle.
DE Trey Flowers (24), Patriots
Flowers doesn’t boast prototypical pass-rushing size (6-foot-2, 265 pounds) or athleticism (he ran a 4.93-second 40-yard dash at the combine), but he gets the job done with a combination of physicality, motor, and hand use, often utilizing his long arms to keep blockers off his body while pushing them into the pocket. Flowers had 6.5 sacks last year while racking up 59 total pressures, per PFF, good for 13th among all 4-3 ends.
A Future Dynamic Duo?
DE Myles Garrett (22) and DE Emmanuel Ogbah (24), Browns
Recent NFL history is littered with fearsome pass-rush duos: The Broncos’ Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware; the Colts’ Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis; the Ravens’ Suggs and Elvis Dumervil; and the Giants’ Osi Umenyiora and Michael Strahan. This pair has a long, long way to go before they can be counted among the league’s elite duos—they’ve played in only five games together so far—but both of Cleveland’s edge rushers possess tremendous upside.
In 11 games as a rookie, Garrett grabbed seven sacks and a forced fumble, and he totaled 37 pressures on the year. He rushed both inside and out, showcasing the elite athleticism that helped make him the top overall pick in 2017. With more refinement of his technique, and a few more moves in his repertoire, Garrett could quickly develop into one of the league’s most dominant pass rushers.
But he’ll need some help, and Ogbah could provide a contrasting style from the opposite side of the line. Whereas Garrett’s pass-rush plan draws heavily on speed and explosiveness, Ogbah’s game is predicated on power and technique—traits he’s utilized on his way to totaling 9.5 sacks in 26 games.
The Atlantan Triumvirate
DT Grady Jarrett (25), DE Takkarist McKinley (22), and DE Vic Beasley (25)
It doesn’t get talked about enough that the Falcons defense features three of the league’s most promising young pass rushers: Grady Jarrett, the 25-year-old defensive tackle who notched four sacks and 39 pressures (eighth among DTs) last year, holds things down in the middle, while 22-year-old defensive end Takkarist McKinley (who recorded six sacks, two forced fumbles, and 34 pressures as a rookie) and 25-year-old Vic Beasley bring heat off the edge.
Beasley’s numbers dropped off last year due to a move to weakside linebacker, but he’s set to move back to his more natural defensive end spot—where he recorded an NFL-best 15.5 sacks in 2016—giving the Falcons the chance to feature one of the most dominant pass-rushing groups in the NFL.
The Question Marks
Development is never linear, and there are dozens of talented pass rushers that just barely missed the cut in the categories above. Players like Buffalo’s Shaq Lawson, San Francisco’s Solomon Thomas, Dallas’s Taco Charlton, New England’s Deatrich Wise Jr., and Miami’s Charles Harris all showed potential last year but need to produce more consistently. So does Detroit’s Anthony Zettel, who made a big jump as a sophomore, netting 6.5 sacks, a forced fumble, and a team-high 43 pressures last season, but faded as the year went on. Pittsburgh’s Stephon Tuitt, who fell far short of his goal of a double-digit sack campaign last year (he finished with three), could certainly make a case as one of the league’s best young pass rushers by reaching a double-digit sack total in 2018.
Jaguars defensive end Dante Fowler has, at times, flashed the type of potential that made him the third overall pick in 2015, and he had eight sacks for the team last year. But a series of off-field incidents over the last year and a half, plus a mysterious upper-body injury that has kept him out of practices this summer, make his role with the team uncertain in 2018. And Cowboys defensive tackle David Irving is a talented interior rusher who notched seven sacks in 2017, but for the second straight year, he’ll begin the year on the suspended list (this time in violation of the league’s substance abuse policy; the year prior he was suspended for violating the league’s PED policy)—and could face further discipline from his involvement in a recent domestic dispute.