Who is the best pass rusher?
This is a question that has buried itself deeply in the minds of NFL fans for decades. It is never a unique answer. There were times when the answer should have been clear, like in the first half of the 2010s when J.J. Watt was wreaking havoc on offensive line opponents. More recently, it should have been clear in the late 2010s when Aaron Donald racked up three DPOY Awards. In 2021, however, the answer seemed much more confusing. Googling this question could lead to a myriad of players nominated by various people, but two players seem to come up more consistently than all the others: T.J. Watt and Myles Garrett of Cleveland.
Does this make sense. These two currently lead the NFL in bags and not only have they been dominant since joining the NFL, but they’ve gotten better every year. However, this debate runs deeper than just NFL fans. These two play in teams from the same division. Their fan bases don’t like each other and they haven’t had much to cheer for this season. The Browns have significantly underperformed after receiving tons of Super Bowl hype in the offseason, and the Steelers don’t have a bad record per se, but have been inconsistent this year, sometimes even inept up front. Maybe both teams can sneak into the playoffs, but it’s clear that having the best pass rusher in the NFL is the biggest thing both of these fanbases can hold on to at this point, but I can’t understand how anyone still thinks TJ Watt both the top pass rusher. I can not.
First let’s get the basics out. Garrett is a year younger than Watts and is friendlier to the team to contract of Watt. Neither of those things matter when determining who is currently best at catching up with opposing quarterbacks, but it’s still something I feel I need to point out. In a sport that actually has a salary cap, signing a longer contract for less money than opponents of similar skill levels can be very beneficial, as is the case with Garrett. However, that doesn’t mean he’s a better pass runner.
However, Garrett’s pass rush payout rates tell the story. Until week 14, there is not a single player in the NFL with a higher rating exceeds the winning speed coming out of bounds with respect to Garrett (27 percent). Watt, however big he is, is only fifth among the defenders on board. Not only does Garrett win more often, but he also makes more double teams.
During week 13, Garrett was the eighth most double-team defensive end / out defender in the NFL, drawing the attention of more than one O-lineman to over a fifth of his quick pass attempts. Watt stands at around 18%, the league’s 19th highest rate. There is an argument that Watt doesn’t draw as many double teams because he plays on the same side of Cameron Heyward’s D-line. Heyward is one of the best inside passers-by in the NFL. Since the two usually play on the same side, the defenses cannot afford to double one of them for fear that the other will break through much more easily. However, with Heyward being as good as he is, you’d expect to see Watt’s win rate rush skyrocketing in the same way that Aldon Smith had insane win rate and sack figures for the San Francisco 49ers when he was playing alongside. by Justin Smith. That’s not to say that Watt doesn’t have those numbers, but rather to demonstrate that Garrett’s ability to deliver similar, and sometimes significantly better numbers than Watt without that inner presence to help him, are all the more impressive.
According to PFF, Garrett he was actually better also in the total defense of the race. It’s with a slim margin (Watts: 70.4 degrees against the stroke; Garrett: 70.6), but it’s still an advantage.
Several oddsmakers currently have Watt and Garrett tied to the top of their defender of the year rankings.
However, a quick dip in the stats clearly shows who was the best edge rusher in the NFL in 2021. I firmly believe that Watt was better than Garrett in 2020 and, in my opinion, should have won the DPOY Award last season over Donald. In 2021, however, he is clearly a step behind Garrett in every department. The debate can rage, but another year of these types of numbers from both players, and we may have to give the argument to Garrett entirely.