It is hard to compare players from different generations because the game evolves, rules change and different body types emerge. So I’m going to rank the top 11 pass rushers of the past 20 years (2004-23).
We must draw the line somewhere, and the line is being drawn at the start of the 2004 season. Apologies to Hall of Famers Michael Strahan (who had 113.5 sacks between 1993-2003 and only 27.5 sacks from 2004-07) and Jason Taylor (who registered 71 sacks between 1997-2003 in his first seven seasons).
Indianapolis Colts fans could find the omission of Dwight Freeney maddening. Freeney’s spin move and career accomplishments will end with a Hall of Fame enshrinement — possibly in 2024. However, Freeney’s home/road splits in Indianapolis, combined with his last five years of diminished performance put him just outside the top 10.
In 2005, Freeney had nine of his 11 sacks at home. He was great in his prime playing inside on the carpet in Indianapolis. Over his career, he had just 47 sacks in 110 road games; he had 78.5 sacks in 108 home games.
Justin Houston also misses the cut. Houston hasn’t made a Pro Bowl since 2015, and he just hasn’t had many dominating seasons. Chandler Jones finished second in Defensive Player of the Year in 2019 and third for the same honor in 2017. But he falls short of this list.
In the last 20 years, sack totals have remained consistent. While there has been a great disparity in stats like running back carries and quarterback ratings, sack totals have stayed steady.
Top 11 Pass Rushers Since 2004
11. Khalil Mack
Khalil Mack was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2016, and he’s been a Pro Bowler in seven of the last eight seasons, including six straight from 2015-20.
Since entering the NFL in 2014, Mack ranks sixth in the NFL with 84.5 sacks. But he hasn’t had a season with 10-plus sacks since 2018. This season, he doesn’t have a sack through three games. His percentage of pass rush snaps with a pressure is down to 12.1 percent, which is down from 12.5 percent a year ago and 13.2 percent in 2021.
10. Jared Allen
We started this ranking with the 2004 season, and that’s good news for Jared Allen, who was picked in the 2004 draft by the Kansas City Chiefs. For a 15-year stretch, only Julius Peppers and DeMarcus Ware had more sacks than Allen.
Allen finished with 136 sacks in his 13-year career, primarily spent with the Chiefs and Minnesota Vikings.
He was a four-time First-Team All-Pro and a five-time Pro Bowler, who set the Vikings’ single-season sack record in 2011 with 22. But even in that career-best season, Allen finished second in the Defensive Player of the Year voting to Terrell Suggs.
9. Micah Parsons
Micah Parsons has played 36 NFL games. He has 30.5 sacks and has pressured the quarterback on 20.9 percent of his pass rushing snaps.
Last year, Parsons joined Reggie White and Aldon Smith as the only defenders since sacks became official in 1982 with 13 sacks in each of their first two seasons. He trails the other active players on this list for one reason only: He hasn’t played enough.
The two guys immediately above him have been elite pass rushers for more than six seasons. The guys ranked even higher have set the standard for longer.
8. Myles Garrett
Sunday, Myles Garrett put on a pass rushing clinic against the Tennessee Titans. On 26 defensive snaps with a pass rush, Garrett had nine pressures (34.6 percent), five hits, four hurries, 3.5 sacks and a forced fumble.
Folks, that game is not an outlier for Garrett, who has 79 sacks in 87 games since entering the NFL. Garrett had 16 sacks in 2021 and 16 more in 2022, and he has 4.5 in three games this year, putting him on pace for 25. He probably won’t get 25 sacks this year, but he does get a place on this list.
7. T.J. Watt
Sorry, Dallas Cowboys fans. J.J. Watt was right when he said his brother, T.J. Watt, is the best defensive player in the game right now. Through the first three games of the season, T.J. Watt has a league-leading six sacks, 19 pressures, 12 quarterback hits and two forced fumbles.
T.J. Watt was the 2021 Defensive Player of the Year and is a three-time First-Team All-Pro. He had 22.5 sacks in 2021 despite missing two full games and portions of four others. If he stays healthy, that 2021 season may take a backseat to this one.
6. Von Miller
In Super Bowl L, Miller was named the MVP with six tackles, 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in a 24-10 win against the Carolina Panthers. In Super Bowl LVI, Miller sacked Burrow twice.
Miller suffered a torn ACL in a Thanksgiving game against the Detroit Lions last season and started this year on the PUP list. Does this 34-year-old have one more Super Bowl run in him?
5. Terrell Suggs
Another player who made his presence known in postseason play was fellow two-time Super Bowl champion Terrell Suggs, who had 12.5 sacks in the postseason.
Suggs was a rookie in 2003 and played the first 16 years of his career with the Baltimore Ravens. Suggs was the Defensive Player of the Year in 2011 when he had 14 sacks and forced seven fumbles.
4. DeMarcus Ware
During his career, DeMarcus Ware registered 138.5 sacks and played in 178 games with 173 starts. In his final season in Dallas, Ware established the team’s career sack record with 117 — a record that still stands. At least until late in the 2029 season when Parsons breaks the mark.
Ware was voted a First-Team All-Pro four times (2007-09, 2011), a second-team All-Pro three times (2006, 2010, 2012) and was selected to nine Pro Bowls (2007-13, 2015-16). He is a member of the NFL’s 2000s All-Decade Team and a deserving Hall of Famer.
3. Aaron Donald
Aaron Donald was the Defensive Player of the Year in 2017, 2018 and 2020. The only other players to win that three times were Lawrence Taylor (the greatest pass rusher ever) and J.J. Watt (who you’ll see shortly on this list).
From 2017-22, Donald faced 1,797 double teams, 152 more than anyone else in the defensive field. Yet, he still led all defensive tackles in pass rush win rate during that span (26 percent). That’s just crazy.
He has 103 sacks in his career, which would be outstanding for any player on the edge, but a defensive tackle getting so many is mind-boggling.
I hesitate to call Donald the greatest pass rushing defensive tackle of all time, only because I remember the great Vikings DT Alan Page. Sacks became an official statistic in 1982, and Page played between 1967-81.
Pro Football Reference, with accurate data from 1960, credits Page with 148.5 sacks. However, Donald is the best pass rushing defensive tackle in the last 40 years and certainly one of the best pass rushers of the last 20 years.
2. Julius Peppers
Defensive end Julius Peppers, who is fourth all-time in sacks and was a rare two-time All-Decade selection during his 17-year career, is among the players who retired after the 2018 season and will soon become eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Peppers was a nine-time Pro Bowl selection and a three-time First-Team All-Pro, and he was named to the All-Decade team for the 2000s and the 2010s. Peppers had 159.5 sacks in his 17 seasons with the Panthers, Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers.
Peppers had a peak and longevity (17 years) that only the true greats have. He had 10 seasons of double-digit sacks — his 11 sacks in 2017 came 15 years after his first season with 10-plus sacks. He was great with different franchises. He was great as a defensive end and great as an outside linebacker.
1. J.J. Watt
J.J. Watt’s four-year stretch beginning in 2012 was as good a stretch as any pass rusher has ever had. It may have even been as good as any NFL player has had in the last 50 years. Think Kurt Warner from 1999-2002 or Terrell Davis from 1995-98. J.J. Watt’s resumé was boosted with a superlative 2018 season (16 sacks, seven forced fumbles) and a 2022 campaign that saw him get the last 12.5 sacks of his career.
How many passes did J.J. Watt swat away during his career? He’s credited with a whopping 70 pass breakups.
There is little doubt in my mind that J.J. Watt is the best pass rusher in the last two decades.
Elliott Kalb has been known in the sports television industry as “Mr. Stats” for more than 35 years. He is a 13-time Sports Emmy winner as a writer, researcher and producer. Follow him on Twitter @MrStats50.