Aaron Donald leads Top-10 interior pass rushers

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Measuring the best pass-rushers on a basis deeper than just sacks has long been a challenge for NFL analysts across the field. Simply counting sacks leaves out the plays in which pressure and disruption rain down on the quarterback, which also carry great importance even if the defenders don’t get home. As Rotoworld draft analyst Josh Norris puts it, disruption is production. Many analytics sites do excellent work charting hours of game film to record and tally instances where they believe a quarterback is under pressure.

However, with the Next Gen Stats data gleaned from the tracking chips in the players’ shoulder pads, we are now able to objectively measure just how far away opposing pass rushers are from the quarterback when they look to deliver their passes. In the latest edition of the Next Gen Stats rankings, we’ll reveal the Top-10 2016 interior defensive lineman at creating pressure by their average raw yards of distance from the opposing quarterback at the time of the throw or sack.

Notes: The term interior defensive lineman is a title intended to group together both traditional 4-3 defensive tackles and five-techniques who line up inside in odd fronts like the 3-4 base package. This does not include interior rushers like Von Miller or Vic Beasley, but those players were ranked last week.

In order to get a glimpse of some of the premier interior pass rushers in the NFL, only linemen with 200 or more pass rush attempts were considered for this ranking. Other rotational players with great scores are mentioned in the “bonus notes” section. The percentiles quoted are for all interior linemen this season, not just 200-plus attempt players.

1) Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams (3.90 average distance to the quarterback)

The Next Gen Stats ranked the Los Angeles Rams as the third-best pass rushing team in the NFL this year. Of course, that ranking was largely achieved due to the efforts of All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald. In his third pro season, Donald registered eight sacks, which while impressive was actually the lowest total of his career. He had nine and 11 in 2014 and 2015, respectively. What the Next Gen Stats tracking confirms is that Donald creates havoc on just about every pass rush attempt even when he’s not bringing the quarterback down for a sack.

Donald’s 3.9 average yards to the quarterback was far and away the best score for any interior defensive lineman this year, with only one other player checking below a 4.0. He’s become a legendary-caliber defensive player in his first three seasons and true franchise cornerstone. It feels like ancient history that some evaluators were worried about Donald’s size for a defensive tackle at 6-foot-1 and 285 pounds. A freakish combination of strength and speed in a compact frame, Donald is a reminder to be cautious when trying to put a player in a box based on one footnote in his profile.

2) Geno Atkins, Cincinnati Bengals (3.97 average distance to the quarterback)

Much like the player ranked ahead of him, Geno Atkins is another undersized 4-3 defensive tackle. A fourth-round pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, the 6-foot-1, sub-290-pound Atkins has racked up 52 sacks in his seven-year career. The All-Pro defender hit a lull in his career when he tore his ACL nine games into the 2013 season following the signing of a $55 million extension. He played all 16 games next season but clearly wasn’t himself. Atkins came roaring back with a vengeance the past two years, piling up 20 sacks combined. The Bengals need to add more players who can put heat on the quarterback to complement Atkins’ work. Domata Peko’s 5.23 was the worst pressure score among interior defensive lineman this year, run-stuffer Pat Sims finished below the 20th percentile and no edge rusher finished with an above-league-average score.

3) Mike Daniels, Green Bay Packer (4.05 average distance to the quarterback)

Mike Daniels has never been the sack monster that the two players ahead of him are, with a career-high of 6.5 back in 2013, but he is one of the most disruptive interior presences. Daniels’ 4.05 pressure score was above the 98th percentile among interior defensive lineman this season. The Packers were the seventh-best pass rushing team in the Next Gen Stats rankings and Daniels’ extremely strong pressure production was the biggest catalyst for that. He’s been a rock for the team over the last three seasons, as he’s started all 48 games in that span. Green Bay doesn’t offer any other player who can pressure the quarterback inside on a consistent basis, and while their edge rushers flashed at times this season, all of Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers and Nick Perry have different questions in their 2017 outlook. Despite a strong ranking in 2016, thanks to the elite play of Mike Daniels, Green Bay will likely look for more pass rush help in the offseason.

4) Dominique Easley, Los Angeles Rams (4.10 average distance to the quarterback)

Jettisoned by the Patriots prior to the season’s start, the 29th overall selection in the 2014 NFL Draft became a big factor as an interior disruptor for the already loaded Los Angeles Rams defensive line. Dominique Easley was a terror up front for the Florida Gators in college before multiple ACL injuries cast questions on his NFL Draft projection. Easley never developed into a consistent force in New England and wore out his welcome after two seasons. He found new life with the Rams, registering 3.5 sacks as a sub-package rusher. Easley’s 4.10 pressure score was in the 97th percentile among interior pass rushers this year. After playing on a one-year deal with the Rams in 2016, Easley will be free to test the market this offseason. With a bit more momentum after a strong showing in Los Angeles, Easley could garner more attention this offseason. However, it would be best for his career if he remained a part of a heavy rotation like he was in LA.

5) Calais Campbell, Arizona Cardinals (4.15 average distance to the quarterback)

Since establishing himself as a starter with the Cardinals in his second season back in 2009, Calais Campbell has been one of the best 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL. He’s averaged seven sacks per season since then. With 345 pass rush attempts this year, Campbell posted a 4.15 pressure score, checking in at the 95th percentile. The Cardinals led the NFL with 48 sacks this year, and two of their edge rushers in Chandler Jones and Markus Golden finished with double-digit sacks. The monstrous 6-foot-8 presence of Campbell helps free up a lot of action for everyone else in addition to the pressure he brings on his own.

6) Fletcher Cox, Philadelphia Eagles (4.17 average distance to the quarterback)

After spending time as a five-technique in a 3-4 scheme desired by former head coach Chip Kelly, Fletcher Cox returned to a role on the interior of a 4-3 line this year. Cox racked up 9.5 sacks in 2015 and was still incredibly effective in 2016, showing he can play in multiple fronts. His 4.17 pressure score fell along the 94th percentile for interior defensive linemen this year. The Eagles locked up the now-26-year old defender to a $100-million-dollar contract last offseason. That deal will keep Cox in Philadelphia until 2022, should he play it out.

7) Tom Johnson, Minnesota Vikings (4.21 average distance to the quarterback)

By far the biggest surprise name on this list, Tom Johnson shows up with a pressure score in the 93rd percentile for interior defensive lineman this year. Johnson racked up 12 sacks as a part-time player for the Vikings from 2014 to 2015. This season, the Vikings added 288-pound defensive tackle Shamar Stephen in pass rush situations and offered quietly strong production as a replacement for Sharrif Floyd, who played just one game. While he’s not someone most fans would know, Johnson’s presence on this list underscores the importance of having a deep defensive line rotation.

8) Lawrence Guy, Baltimore Ravens (4.24 average distance to the quarterback)

Much like Tom Johnson before him, it’s unlikely most readers know recognize the name Lawrence Guy. A five-year veteran, Guy had stints with the Colts and Chargers before coming to Baltimore. He has 5.5 of his 6.5 career sacks since signing with the Ravens. Despite only registering a single sack, Guy brought consistent pressure with a 4.24 average yards to the quarterback on pass rush attempts. He only played 47 percent of the defensive snaps, so he’s a rotational player, but his value to the team appears clear.

9) Joey Bosa, San Diego Chargers (4.25 average distance to the quarterback)

The third-overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Joey Bosa got off to a slow start after a long arduous holdout cost him the first four games due to a lack of preparation. Bosa made his presence felt as a soon as he hit the field, however, racking up 10.5 sacks in just 12 games this season. The rookie’s 4.24 pressure score fell in the 89th percentile of interior pass rushers this season. After Bosa got on the field, starting in Week 5, he played 71 percent of the Chargers’ total defensive snaps, primarily as a hand-in-the-dirt pass rusher. As the organization transitions to Los Angeles, Bosa will be top the list of cornerstones figures for the team. He will be even more important to the defense if they lose Melvin Ingram, who checked in as a Top-10 edge rusher this season, to free agency.

10) Jadeveon Clowney, Houston Texans (4.28 average distance to the quarterback)

After a frustrating first two seasons mired by injuries, the 2014 No. 1 overall pick finally fully transformed into a dominant player this season. With J.J. Watt out of the picture most of the season with a back injury, Clowney took over as the primary threat in the pass rushing unit. His six total sacks don’t tell the story of his disruption, but that’s where the Next Gen Stats help us. His 4.28 average yards to the quarterback on pass rush attempts gives him a pressure score in the 86th percentile. Both Clowney and linebacker Whitney Mercilus ranked in the top-five in fastest average time to sack during the regular season, becoming one of the most feared duos in the game. Clowney ranked third overall with an average time to sack of just 3.62 seconds. When he put his sights on a quarterback, he closed the deal with ferocity. One has to wonder, and shudder in fear if you play in the AFC South, what this defense will look like in 2017 when Watt infuses with a Top-10 interior rusher in Clowney, and a Top-10 edge rusher in Mercilus.

Bonus notes:

Grady Jarrett finished 15th on the list with a 4.33 pressure score, over the 80th percentile. The second-year defensive tackle was building a potential Super Bowl MVP case before the Falcons offense gave away the game to Tom Brady and the Patriots. The Next Gen Stats show that Jarrett was one of the top interior players all season long. Another up and comer is the Chiefs rookie, Chris Jones, who checked in with a 4.30 score on 205 rush attempts, a mark that fell in the 84th percentile.

No interior defensive lineman had more pass rush attempts than Ndamukong Suh’s 421. It hurt his pressure score (4.64), which checked in at 42nd among interior players this year. The Dolphins need to add more bodies to the rotation to keep Suh fresh and at maximum strength on every rush attempt.

Sheldon Richardson of the Jets still maintained a strong score (4.36) but his teammate Muhammad Wilkerson’s 5.03 was below the fourth percentile. It was a rough year for the former Pro Bowl defender. He was coming off a broken leg late in 2015, so perhaps that’s the explanation. Either way, the Jets will likely be counting on better play from Wilkerson next season after signing him to an $86 million-dollar deal in the offseason. It will be of even more importance to get him back to form if they do indeed explore trading Richardson.

The Giants were the only team who did not have an interior DL with an above average pressure score. Damon Harrison and Jonathan Hankins are strong run defenders. Yet, they posted 4.89 and 4.93 pressure scores, respectively, on 563 combined pass rush attempts. The Giants need to explore adding a candidate to play three-technique in pass rush situations.

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