Best NFL pass-rushers by year: Who owns the Championship Belt?

ByBill Barnwell ESPN logo
Thursday, September 21, 2023

Let's take a step back through history and pull out an old favorite: the Championship Belt. The concept is simple at its core: At the end of each year, who would be considered the best person at whatever I'm trying to judge? That doesn't mean the most productive or successful player or coach in that given season, although you need those numbers to have a shot at winning -- or retaining -- the crown.

I've done several of these in the past, including Championship Belts for quarterbacks, head coaches, starting pitchersand American athletes.

Think about 2019, when Ravens quarterbackLamar Jackson was the unanimous pick for NFL MVP. No issue there. Jackson had an incredible season. After that year's Super Bowl, though -- when Patrick Mahomes got his first title -- if you asked 100 football fans to pick the league's best quarterback, would the majority have picked Jackson? My guess is more would have chosen Mahomes or Tom Brady.

No slight to Jackson, but the playoffs and preexisting résumés also matter if you are going to hand out the Quarterback Championship Belt. There's also an element of "To be the man, you need to beat the man" factored in here; Jackson was better than Mahomes in 2019, but was he so much better that he deserved to wrest the belt away from the Chiefs star in a season in which Mahomes threw for more than 4,000 yards with just five picks in 14 games and then led three straight comeback victories in the playoffs? That's a tough argument for me.

It's time to offer the same belt treatment to NFL pass-rushers. If quarterback is the most important position in football, getting after those quarterbacks and taking them down has pretty clearly become the second-most important spot to fill. Elite edge rushers get paid more than any other position in the league besides quarterbacks, and the league's best interior disruptors are right alongside them. They might not play on the edge often, but the Rams and Chiefs won their Super Bowls with Aaron Donald and Chris Jones as their primary pass-rushers.

I'm going to run through history year by year and identify who would have been the most popular candidate if you asked fans to name the league's best pass-rusher. Again, the numbers and award voting go a long way, but so does body of work and reputation. If a player wins the belt and continues to perform at a high level, he's going to keep the title until somebody distinctly outplays him. Keep that in mind if (when) you disagree with my choices.

I'm going to start in 1981 for a couple of reasons. One is getting to work with official data; while sources such asPro Football Reference have incorporated the work done by researchers to find sack data from earlier decades, sacks didn't become an official statistic until 1982. The other has to do with the guy who changed the game. With all due respect to legends Deacon Jones, Joe Greene and Jack Youngblood, there's no more appropriate place to start this list than with LT, who redefined the position:

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Jump to an interesting season:

1991 | 1998 | 2001

2004 | 2007 | 2010

2012 | 2017 | 2022 | 2023

1981-86: Lawrence Taylor, Giants

Taylor was both Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in 1981, when he helped a Giants defense that had been 27th in points allowed jump to third in one season. He was Defensive Player of the Year again in 1982 and won the award again in 1986, becoming the second and most recent defender to win league MVP honors in the process.

To put Taylor's performance in context, I'll remind you of what coach Bill Belichick said about him in talking to ESPN's Mike Reiss: "I've been fortunate to coach a lot of great, great defensive players," Belichick said, "but when you talk about Lawrence Taylor, now that's a whole different conversation. I mean, honestly, he could have played any position on defense except corner. He probably could have played corner, too, but safety, linebacker, inside, outside, defensive end, defensive tackle. He played nose guard at North Carolina, so put him wherever you want."

There were players who might have competed with Taylor during this stretch. Mark Gastineau led the league with 19 sacks in 1983 and then hit 22 sacks in 1984, setting an NFL record that stood for more than a decade. Richard Dent had consecutive 17-sack seasons in 1984 and 1985 for the Bears, who fielded what might have been the best defense in NFL history during the latter season. Even given how productive those players were, though, the majority of NFL observers at the time would have suggested that the Jets and Bears would have improved if Taylor replaced Gastineau or Dent in the lineup. There was just no replacing Taylor.

1987-89: Reggie White, Eagles

Well, unless you managed to sub in a pass-rusher who arguably had the best career of any defender in NFL history. White announced himself as a superstar when former Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan joined the Eagles in 1986, racking up 18 sacks. White was overshadowed by Taylor's MVP season then, but with the Giants star taking a step backward in 1987, White upped his game and hit 21 sacks in 1987, winning his first Defensive Player of the Year trophy.

White led the league in sacks the following season with 18, giving him a whopping 70 through his first four seasons. (I'm not including his time spent in the USFL.) Only one other player (Al Baker) has even topped 60 over his first four campaigns. White continued to be one of the NFL's most devastating pass-rushers, but another Hall of Famer made his case in 1990.

1990: Bruce Smith,Bills

The only man in history with 200 career sacks had been a standout pass-rusher for years in Buffalo, but 1990 was a breakout season for Smith and the franchise. The Bills made the first of their four trips to the Super Bowl after a 51-3 shellacking of the Raiders in the AFC Championship Game.

Smith's development into a superstar might have gotten them there. He had 19 sacks and forced four fumbles in 1989, both of which were career highs. He also claimed his first Defensive Player of the Year award in the process, earning 90% of the available votes. Watch Smith's 19 sacks from that season, and you'll see him split double-teams and nearly beat quarterbacks to the end of their drop. What a player.

Smith was limited to five games by knee issues in 1991, which cost him the title. Frankly, there's a handful of viable candidates here. Chiefs fans will be mad I never get to Derrick Thomas. Seahawks fans will argue for Cortez Kennedy. Vikings fans will make the case for John Randle, and Saints fans will want to see Pat Swilling. For now, though, with Smith ceding the trophy, I have to go back to the previous holder.

1991-93: Reggie White, Eagles/Packers

Back to White, who was finishing his career with the Eagles before becoming arguably the best free agent signing in league history in joining the Packers. He had 13 sacks in each of these three campaigns; others had bigger seasons over this stretch, but nobody was more consistently great. White also helped to make Clyde Simmons a superstar on the other side of the line, as the 1986 ninth-round pick peaked with a 19-sack season in 1992.

White slipped to eight sacks in his second season with the Packers, and as he turned 34, it might have been fair to wonder whether the legendary defender had played his best football. As it stood, he already had five seasons as the best pass-rusher alive, putting him one behind Taylor.

1994: Kevin Greene,Steelers

It's tough to separate a great pass-rusher from the defense around him. Take Richard Dent. While there's no question he was a spectacular player, would he have been as good without the rest of the 1985 Bears around him? Nobody is arguing that Taylor was a creation of the players around him, of course, but it certainly had to help to play for Bill Parcells, be coached by Belichick and haveCarl Banks and Pepper Johnson on his side of the ball.

Well, Greene proved his greatness as a pass-rusher by doing it all around the league. After back-to-back 16.5-sack seasons highlighted his first run with the Rams, Greene left in free agency and joined the Steelers in 1993. He led the league in sacks the following season with 14 while forming the most feared one-two punch alongside Greg Lloyd. Lloyd actually finished ahead of Greene in the Defensive Player of the Year balloting (for an award that eventually was won by Deion Sanders in his lone season with the 49ers), but Greene was the more productive pass-rusher.

He would go on to have another 14.5-sack season with the Panthers in 1996, then a 10.5-sack season with the 49ers in 1997 before hitting double digits two more times afterward with Carolina. It was a down 1994 for most of the league's top pass-rushers, so Greene is one and done here, but he's the only player during the "official" sack era to generate at least 10 sacks on four different teams.

1995-97: Bruce Smith,Bills

Back to Smith, who probably deserves some of the credit for Bryce Paup winning Defensive Player of the Year with a 17.5-sack season after joining the Bills in 1995. Ask Bills player Mark Kelso. "There's no question [Paup] won it because of Bruce Smith," Kelso told the State Journal-Register in 2009. "He had a tremendous year, but it was because Bruce was getting double- and triple-teamed, and he was free."

Paup had never had that sort of production beforehand with the Packers, where he played with White, and never topped double digits again. Smith was in the middle of a run with 12 double-digit-sack campaigns in 13 tries, with that injury-hit 1991 season as the lone holdout. The 11-time Pro Bowler won Defensive Player of the Year for the second time in 1996 and finished second in 1997, racking up 27.5 more sacks over a two-year span. He declined after that, but Smith still had 46 sacks over his final six seasons, finishing as a 40-year-old with Washington in 2003.

1998: Reggie White, Packers

Guess who's back? A now 37-year-old White had continued to play at a high level, but I don't think anybody expected a 16-sack campaign from the grizzled vet in 1998. He won Defensive Player of the Year for the second time and carried a Packers defense that didn't have another player with more than eight takedowns. He retired after the season, perhaps in part because the Packers needed the salary cap space. He would return for one more season with the Panthers in 2000 before retiring for good.

This is the last showing for the big three of White, Smith and Taylor on this list. Over an 18-year span, I believe that one of those three would have been considered the best pass-rusher in 17 of those seasons. What an incredible run.

1999-2000: Warren Sapp, Buccaneers

With the great edge rushers fading or retiring, perhaps it's only fair we introduce an interior disruptor to the list. Sapp devastated opposing offensive lines as the destructive 3-technique tackle for Tony Dungy's defenses in Tampa Bay. The 1995 first-round pick won Defensive Player of the Year for leading the Bucs to a top-three scoring defense finish in 1999, doing so on a team in which the starting edge rushers (Chidi Ahanotu and Steve White) finished with a combined 8.5 sacks.

Sapp retained the belt in 2000. He ceded Defensive Player of the Year to Ray Lewis but managed a whopping 16.5 sacks in his most productive campaign. Sapp didn't go above 10 sacks again across his seven remaining seasons, but the future Hall of Famer helped lead the Bucs to a Super Bowl in 2002. You could make a case for rookie sensation Jevon Kearse in 1999, but Sapp became a prototype of what teams dreamed they would land at defensive tackle for the ensuing two decades.

2001: Michael Strahan, Giants

Yes, once upon a time, before he became a television star and morning personality, Strahan was a pretty good football player! It looked like he had peaked with a 15-sack season in 1998, but then came 2001. He was off the scoresheet for the first two weeks of the season but got going fast. He racked up 15 sacks over his next seven games, including a three-sack effort against the Saints and a four-bagger against the Rams.

Strahan's final sack of that record-setting season might be infamous, given that quarterbackBrett Favre seemed to go down innocuously under pressure from an unblocked Strahan. Politely, I'll just suggest most quarterbacks in their right minds would take a knee against an unblocked Strahan and call it a day as opposed to trying to take on a dominant edge rusher. Even if you want to paint his single-season record with an asterisk, he still managed 22.5 sacks. No other Giants player had more than six.

2002: Jason Taylor, Dolphins

When Strahan took a step backwardfrom that legendary season, it opened the door for Taylor, who had a career year in his age-28 season. Taylor led the league with 18.5 sacks, finishing three ahead of any other player.

He threw in seven forced fumbles for good measure, including two in a key late-season victory over the Raiders. The Dolphins weren't a great team -- they finished 9-7 and didn't make the playoffs -- but Taylor was the league's best pass-rusher.

2003: Michael Strahan, Giants

Strahan took back the belt in 2003 with an 18.5-sack campaign on a downright miserable Giants team. In a year in which they won four games, faced only 519 pass attempts and didn't have a single other defensive player with more than 5.5 sacks, he routinely took on double-teams and still managed to consistently make plays. While 2001 was about Strahan taking over a handful of games, 2003 was about consistency. He had 12 different games with at least one sack, a figure that tied him for the league record at the time. (It has since been topped, including once by a player who will later appear on this list.)

This was Strahan's last dominant season; he missed half of 2004 after tearing a pectoral muscleon his right side and was further sidelined by a right foot ailment in 2006. He considered retiring after the season before returning for one final campaign in 2007. Of course, he made the right choice, as he went off into the sunset, having helped the Giants upset the previously undefeated Patriots in Super BowlXLII.

2004-05: Dwight Freeney, Colts

That spin move. Freeney wasn't always the best run defender, but the Colts didn't ask or need him to be great against the ground game, especially when quarterbackPeyton Manning and wide receiverMarvin Harrison had them playing from ahead.Freeney was a nightmare to handle on third downs, especially once Robert Mathis emerged as a nearly-as-devastating option on the other side of the line.

In 2004 and 2005, though, Freeney was the focal point of the pass rush. He led the league with 16 sacks in 2004, then added 11 more in 2005, when he finished second in the Defensive Player of the Year balloting behind Brian Urlacher. Freeney was relatively small for a 4-3 end at that time at 6-foot-1 and 268 pounds, but his acceleration and ability to keep pass-rushers off balance made Freeney an essential part of a Colts team that would eventually land a title in 2006.

2006: Jason Taylor, Dolphins

After 2002, Taylor settled back into a role as a very good pass-rusher, if not someone competing for this list. Then 2006 rolled around. Playing for Nick Saban and stuck with the league's fourth-worst offense, he single-handedly needed to win games for his team. With 13.5 sacks and a remarkable nine forced fumbles, he nearly made the Dolphins a passable team. In November alone, he had two games with a sack, a forced fumble and an interception return for a touchdown.

Taylor won Defensive Player of the Year, got to 11 sacks in 2007 and then bounced around the league for the next four seasons without topping seven sacks again. If you want another candidate for 2006, you could very easily argue for Shawne Merriman, who had racked up 17 sacks in 12 games, but I'm a little squeamish about picking somebody for a season in which they were suspended for four gamesfor testing positive for steroids. Merriman is one of many candidates for 2007, where there was no easy favorite.

2007-08: DeMarcus Ware, Cowboys

This is the toughest season in these rankings. Twelve different defenders had between 12 and 15.5 sacks. The top defensive lineman in the Defensive Player of the Year voting was Albert Haynesworth, who created plenty of opportunities for his teammates but wasn't himself a dominant pass-rusher. Mike Vrabel and Patrick Kerney were also in the running -- great defenders but not the sort of dominant pass-rushers you'll see throughout this list. A couple of other candidates will appear on this list later on, but it wasn't quite their year.

I have to nominate Ware, who was third in the NFL in both sacks and quarterback knockdowns. He had been on a steady upward trajectory since his rookie season in 2005 and made his first All-Pro appearance in 2007. I narrowly have him ahead of Jared Allen that year.

In 2008, Ware became the first player to get to 20 sacks in a season since Strahan in 2001, so nobody was going to take the belt away there. It's going to irk Steelers fans, who can credibly point to James Harrison as the rightful winner. Harrison broke out with 16 sacks and seven forced fumbles before helping to win the Super Bowl with a 100-yard pick-six before halftime. Harrison won Defensive Player of the Year, although Ware wasn't far behind.

This is where being the reigning champion has its advantages. If Allen had held the title in 2007 and I had needed to pick a new winner for 2008, I would have chosen Harrison because I believe his season was narrowly better than Ware's. With Ware as the incumbent, though, I need to see a larger gap between the top contender and the reigning champ to take the title belt away. As a result, Harrison misses out on his reign. He'll have to settle for that Defensive Player of the Year trophy instead.

2009: Jared Allen, Vikings

In 2009, Ware dropped to 11 sacks while battling a neck injury. Allen, who had pushed his way to the Vikings via trade since his mention in 2007, finished second in sacks with 14.5. He forced five fumbles, recovering three and taking one to the house. He was the key defensive star on arguably the league's best team, a 12-4 Vikings squad that made it all the way to the NFC Championship Game before Favre threw a pick to Tracy Porter.

He followed up this season by appearing in "Jackass 3D," somehow becoming one of two players on this list to make an appearance in the movies of the "Jackass" franchise.

2010-11: DeMarcus Ware, Cowboys

And then the belt goes back to Ware, who led the league with 15.5 sacks in a return to his prior form. (Allen finished with 11 in a lost season for the Vikings.) The other top candidate was Clay Matthews, who picked up 13.5 sacks in his second season and helped push the Packers to a Super Bowl in what ended up as Matthews' best season. Harrison was also in the discussion in 2011, although he missed four games with a fractured orbital bone and was suspended for a fifth.

I just have to throw my hands up for 2011. Ware was dominant yet again, with 19.5 sacks. It sounds like he would be an easy pick until you noticed Allen finished with 22 sacks, coming within one additional takedown of setting the NFL record. How do you pick against a guy with 22 sacks?

Very narrowly, I have to give it to Ware because of the context around both players. With Favre replaced by Donovan McNabb and Christian Ponder, the Vikings went 3-13 and finished 31st in scoring defense. This is an individual award, and it might be more impressive that Allen could manage 22 sacks on such a disaster of a team, but Ware playing for an average Cowboys team just feels more seemly to me. I'd probably pick Allen if neither was champion, but again, this close call goes to the titleholder.

2012-15: J.J. Watt, Texans

And then Mr. Unblockable showed up. The 2011 rookie version of Watt was a fun player to throw around in columns as an undercover star. He drew national attention in the playoffs when he took a pick-six of Andy Dalton to the house in the wild-card round and helped quarterbackT.J. Yates win a playoff game. Watt was clearly very good, but no one knew what was going to come next.

The 2012-15 version of Watt might be the best football player I've covered. Nobody -- not even quarterbackPatrick Mahomes -- was so much further ahead of their competition. He won three Defensive Player of the Year trophies in four seasons. In four seasons, he had 69 sacks and an unfathomable 119 tackles for loss. TFLs are a modern stat, but Watt's 2012, 2014 and 2015 campaigns are Nos. 1, 2 and 3 among the single-season standings.

Watt came around as we began to get access to more reliable data, which made his outlier status even more obvious. Take 2015 and quarterback knockdowns. He had 51. Nobody else had more than 28. How can you nearly double every other pass-rusher when putting the quarterback on the turf? His 119 tackles for loss put him 51 ahead of any other defensive player and 57 ahead of any other defensive lineman over this four-year span.

Injuries ended Watt's run at the top in 2016, although he had a great season for the Texans in 2018 and made plenty of plays for a Cardinals team that wasn't going anywhere last season. He didn't redefine the sport like Taylor did as an edge rusher -- and his peak was four seasons long -- but I'm not sure any defender burned brighter at his best.

2016: Von Miller,Broncos

Miller had been a dominant edge rusher for the majority of the first five seasons of his career, but he was stuck behind the Ware/Allen debate in 2011 and Watt's dominance over the ensuing four seasons. When Watt went down, Miller pounced. His 13.5 sacks in the regular season left him second in the Defensive Player of the Year rankings behind division mate Khalil Mack, but I'll lean on Miller's résumé.

If you want to cheat and include January and February of 2016, Miller and Ware carried a Broncos team that unironically benched Peyton Manning for Brock Osweiler through the postseason and to Super Bowl 50. I believe that's why Miller didn't win Defensive Player of the Year in 2016; voters typically want to reward a player who is at his peak, and he had peaked when he was living in the backfield against the Patriots and Panthers the prior postseason. He was still playing at a high enough level during the 2016 season, though, to make his first and only appearance atop this list.

2017-20: Aaron Donald, Rams

I probably don't need to convince you that Donald should be here. It feels weird to say this, but his sheer dominance as a penetrating defensive tackle is probably underrated by virtue of coming so quickly after what Watt had done just before his reign. (Watt was a defensive end, but he moved inside more often than many of the other pure edge rushers on this list.)

Donald won Defensive Player of the Year three times in four years, which would have seemed more surreal if Watt hadn't done it just beforehand. Donald dominated the tackle-for-loss and quarterback knockdown charts, but so did Watt. I'm not picking sides and saying one player was better than the other, but if Donald had shown up a decade earlier, more people would regard him as the once-in-a-generation player he has been than have post-Watt. The opposite would be true if Donald had come first.

OK, I'll pick sides by not picking sides. Watt had the better peak, which is what we measure here, but Donald's run as the best player at his position lasted longer. He had seven consecutive first-team All-Pro nods. The only defensive linemen with more are Smith and White, who played into their late 30s. Donald's streak was stopped by a left ankle injury in 2022, but would anybody doubt the future Hall of Famer adding one more All-Pro appearance to his résumé by the time he hangs up his cleats? If so, he would have a strong case as the best defensive tackle in NFL history.

2021: T.J. Watt, Steelers

Donald didn't slip much in 2021, especially considering what he did in turning things around for the Rams in the second half of their Super Bowl victory over the Bengals. Totals of 12.5 sacks and 25 knockdowns are incredible for a defensive tackle, even with Donald's lofty standards. He finished third in the Defensive Player of the Year balloting; it's almost impossible to win the belt away from him when he's playing at that level.

I would be derelict in my duties if I didn't award the 2021 title to the younger Watt brother, though. After slowly working his way up from 13 sacks in 2018 to 14.5 in 2019 and 15 in 2020, he had one of the most dominant pass-rushing seasons in league history. He tied the single-season record with 22.5 sacks in 15 games. He followed in J.J.'s footsteps by leading the league with 21 tackles for loss and added 39 quarterback knockdowns. Watt won 42 of 50 Defensive Player of the Year votes, so I'm not alone in feeling like he was on a level of his own in 2021.

In 2022, though, a torn pec in the opener cut Watt's season in half, which opened the door for a player you'll be seeing on the field Thursday night.

2022: Nick Bosa, 49ers

Bosa's pass-rushing production since entering the league has been remarkably consistent. While a torn ACL in his left knee cost him most of his 2020 campaign, he has 43 sacks and 110 knockdowns in 53 career games. The 2022 Defensive Player of the Year had 48 quarterback hits last season; the only other player to top 30 was Maxx Crosby, and his 35 left him well short of the 49ers star.

Bosa also did that on a line without any other pass-rusher of note. (Arik Armstead is a good two-way player, but he's not a great pure pass-rusher.) The most productive defensive lineman getting after the quarterback beyond Bosa for last year's 49ers was Samson Ebukam, who had five sacks and seven knockdowns. San Francisco defensive line coach Kris Kocurek has molded journeymen and reclamation projects into useful players around his star edge rusher, but Bosa was a one-man show up front last season.

2023: ???

Bosa holds the belt, but as we sit here in Week 3 of the season, it's impossible to say whether he'll retain it for another year. He is sackless so far after holding out during training camp, but I suspect that zero in the sack column won't survive Thursday night's matchup with quarterbackDaniel Jones & Co., especially with Giants left tackle Andrew Thomasruled out for the game.

There are many fun pass-rushers in line to take the belt if Bosa can't hold up. T.J. Watt has four sacks, nine knockdowns and two forced fumbles in two games. Micah Parsons has three sacks and six knockdowns; I'm not sure there's a level of dominance quite like telling the opposing coach that he should have taken his starting quarterback out of the game for his safety. If you're a pass-rusher and you're so dominant that you are actually looking out for opposing quarterbacks, you're a bad man.

I could name a half-dozen candidates. Myles Garrett could win this award and set the single-season sack record. Chris Jones might be the new best interior disruptor in the game.Quinnen Williams should be in the conversation somewhere. You get the idea. Picking a champion is hard.

What is clear, though, is that we live in an exciting era for pass-rushers. Bosa is 25. Watt is 28. Parsons is still only 24. Could they be the new Smith, White and Taylor and trade this belt for the next decade? Those are impossibly lofty expectations, but we're looking at a truly special set of defenders atop the NFL right now.

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