AFC North Ranked: Top Defensive Ends Coming Into 2021

AFC North Ranked: Top Defensive Ends Coming Into 2021

Cole Paganelli
3 years ago
3 min read
AFC North Ranked: Top Defensive Ends Coming Into 2021

The AFC North has always had the reputation of low-scoring, defensive football. At the core of that reputation is the pass rush, as the division is full of highly-regarded edge rushers to make the life of a quarterback difficult.

Here are the top defensive ends in the AFC North heading into the 2021 season. For this list, I’m looking at players whose primary job is to rush the quarterback.

1. Myles Garrett - Cleveland Browns

Garrett entered the league the same year as Watt, but he had the distinction of being the number one overall pick. So far, the 25-year old has delivered on the high expectations to become one of the elite defensive ends in football.

Even with missing six games in 2019 and two games last year, Garrett has still managed to record double-digit sacks. His effort was impressive last year in particular, where he battled through COVID-19 to record a team-high 12 sacks in 14 games. Garrett also has 83 total quarterback hits in four seasons and 42 tackles for loss.

Cleveland should be especially excited for Garrett this year, as new acquisition Jadaveon Clowney will force defenses to get away from double-teaming Garrett. As a result, the young defensive star should get even better in 2021.

2. TJ Watt - Pittsburgh Steelers

The youngest Watt entered the league in 2017 as a late first-round selection. Since then, Watt has become one of the best pass rushers in the league, as well as one of the best overall defensive players in football.

Watt has registered 13 or more sacks in each of the last three seasons, culminating with a league-leading 15 sacks in 2020. No one in the NFL has had more sacks (29.5) and quarterback hits (46) in the last two years than Watt. TJ also led football this past season with 23 tackles for loss while forcing eight fumbles the year prior. 

The Steeler defense was a force to be reckoned with in 2020, thanks in large part to Watt. His consistency over the last few years sits him atop this list as the top defensive end/edge rusher in the division.

3. Jadeveon Clowney - Cleveland Browns

Speaking of Clowney, the former number one overall pick, he has seen his stock take a steep decline in the last few seasons. Now in Cleveland on a one-year “prove it” deal, the 28-year old is out to prove he is still one of the game’s top defensive ends.

Unlike the previous two players on this list, Clowney has failed to reach double-digit sacks in seven years in the league. He has also battled a few different injuries, including one last season, which limited him to only eight games with the Titans. However, while his value as a pass-rusher has gone down, his play in run defense has been elite, ranking in the 95th percentile of players at his position, stopping the run, according to Pro Football Focus.

Additionally, much like he will help Garrett, defenses will treat Garrett as the primary threat, allowing Clowney some opportunities to get to the backfield. Even though his star has faded some, the talent and potential is still high enough to put him at number three on the list.

4. Trey Hendrickson - Cincinnati Bengals

Hendrickson is the third player on the list to be drafted in 2017, except his name wasn’t called until the middle of the third round. It also wasn’t until last season when Hendrickson became a starter for the Saints, but his 2020 season followed by his subsequent signing with the Bengals makes him one of the better defensive ends in the AFC North.

Entering last season with just 6.5 sacks for his career, Hendrickson exploded onto the scene, registering 13.5 sacks in 15 starts. He also totaled up 25 QB hits and 12 tackles for loss as well as 49 quarterback pressures, 20 more than he had in any other season. His breakout year managed to earn the 26-year old a hefty four-year deal worth $60 million from the Bengals.

Hendrickson might live up to the challenge of being Cincinnati’s top pass-rusher, or he might struggle with the additional blocking he will face. But he managed to earn a lot of his sacks through effort, something that should carry over in his new division quite well.

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