Having a good edge defender can change the fate of your football team. Elite edge rushers can disrupt everything the opposing offenses want to do in the passing game, and the ability to set the edge well against the run hurts the opposing teams big play potential by shutting their offense off horizontally.
The NFC North has a ton of edge rushing talent with teams like the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions making huge splashes in free agency last year, the Chicago Bears making a franchise-defining trade and the Minnesota Vikings having one of the top duos in the league for what feels like an eternity.
Today we rank the top edge rushers in the division, parsing out some of the best defensive players in the NFL heading into the 2020 season.
5. Trey Flowers (Detroit Lions)
Trey Flowers was the consensus top free agent in the 2019 class. While he took a bit of time to make his mark in Detroit after he struggled with an early season shoulder injury, he took off and looked like the $90 million edge rusher the team signed.
Flowers is an interesting player. He is not really someone the stuffs the box score much himself. He has never managed eight sacks in a single season but he consistently generates pressure to disrupt opposing offenses. While Flowers is not a playmaker in a true sense, he regularly creates plays for the guys who play around him.
The pass rusher has been consistent, though. He has 28 sacks over the past four years, and they are pretty evenly distributed throughout. He will also be 27 by the time next season starts, which is fairly young for a guy entering his sixth NFL season.
Flowers is one of the weirder stars in the league, but his presence on the Lions defense is a huge boon for them.
4. Danielle Hunter (Minnesota Vikings)
Lions fans will be incredibly familiar with this guy. Danielle Hunter has given the Lions — and every other team in the NFC North — hell over the years. The pass rusher had another 14.5 sack season in 2019, bringing his career total up to 54.5 over the past five seasons.
Hunter is one of the quickest pass rushers in the league. He explodes off of the edge before the opposing tackle can even react. It is almost impossible to stop him without dedicating a lot of manpower to his side of the field.
Hunter will not get to play across from longtime partner Everson Griffen this year, which may cause a down tick in his numbers this year as he will have to face a lot more double teams, but do not be surprised if he remains a disruptive force upfront in 2020.
3. Preston Smith (Green Bay Packers)
Preston Smith was one of the most underrated players in the league while he was in Washington. The edge rusher was a consistent presence off of the edge, but lived in the shadow of players like Ryan Kerrigan and Daron Payne, and he played for a team people just did not really care about. He made the move over the Green Bay last offseason and finally made a name for himself in the league.
The pass rusher set a career high with 12 sacks in 2019, while his 56 combined tackles was a career mark as well. He played on an incredibly talented, yet inconsistent Packers defense, and his work on the edge is what kept them afloat at some points during the season.
Smith could certainly be an ace pass rusher elsewhere, but he currently does a great job working as the number two guy across from...
2. Za’Darius Smith (Green Bay Packers)
You could argue that Za’Darius Smith was the best defensive player in the NFL last season. He certainly had my vote for Defensive Player of the Year, and Smith was a player I desperately wanted the Lions to sign in 2019.
Smith ended up playing for the Lions’ arch-rival in Green Bay, though, and was a terror coming off of the edge for them last season. His 13.5 sacks and 55 combined tackles last season were both career highs, and he somehow only got better after leaving the Baltimore Ravens and their incredibly creative pass rushing scheme.
Getting to play across his fellow Smith “brother” certainly helps—as it did for Preston—but he is a devastating pass rusher in his own right. Smith flies off the edge, is incredibly strong, has great bend and can tear through double teams to get to the quarterback.
Smith became a household name in 2019 but still is somehow underrated in the national discourse.
1. Khalil Mack (Chicago Bears)
Khalil Mack is an all-time great and probable Hall of Famer. The edge rusher arrived in Chicago just before the 2018 season after the team sent two first-round picks to Oakland for his services. He was a star from Week 1—dominating the team’s season opener against the Packers—and was key to the teams astronomical rise to an NFC title.
While he did not dominate headlines in 2019 like he did the previous year, he was still great despite the team winning fewer games. Mack notched another 8.5 sacks and 47 combined tackles in 2019 and still managed to be a disruptive force upfront despite a down year across the rest of the defensive line.
Expect Mack to bounce right back to his former numbers in 2020. Getting to play across Robert Quinn instead of Leonard Floyd this year should help him, and 2019 may seem like more of a blip on the radar rather than real regression for him.