NFL sack projections for 2021: Ranking top 50 pass-rushers

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NFL sack projections for 2021: Ranking top 50 pass-rushers, plus where T.J. Watt, Myles Garrett, Aaron Donald land​

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Sacks are still king for NFL pass-rushers. There's more to a well-rounded defender than just sack totals, of course, but there's glory in taking down quarterbacks, and those negative-yardage plays are certainly impactful.

Can past performance -- including total sacks, sack rates and age -- help us predict future sack results? That's what I tried to answer this offseason, when I built a sack projection model for the 2021 season. I used several statistical resources for the model, including:

  • Projected snaps, courtesy of ESPN's Mike Clay
  • Pass rush win rate, which uses player tracking data from NFL Next Gen Stats
  • Sacks over expectation, which determines the likelihood of an average pass-rusher recording a sack on each play
  • How often a player's defensive coordinator/defensive head coach blitzed in the past
  • How often opposing quarterbacks on each player's 2021 schedule take sacks
  • A player's team's win total, which matters because a winning team forces opponents to take greater risks and pass more
Only defensive linemen and linebackers who rushed the passer at least 25% of the time last season were included (sorry, Jamal Adams) in my projections, and rookies were excluded. Which pass-rushers should we expect to get the most sacks? Which could disappoint and see their sack numbers decline? Plus, which free-agent signing will pay off? Here's who we project to lead the league in sacks, and I'll include the full top 50 at the bottom:



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1. T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh Steelers

Sacks in 2020: 15
Projected sacks in 2021: 11.5

It had to be Watt at No. 1, right? He checks every box you'd ask for on a pass-rusher's résumé:

  • He has 29.5 sacks over the past two seasons and is the defending sack leader.
  • He has a 28% pass rush win rate over the past two seasons and is the defending PRWR leader.
  • He had great sack opportunities last season and made the most of them with the third-highest sacks over expectations
  • He plays exclusively on the edge.
  • He's in the prime of his career (age 26).
  • He plays on a blitz-heavy Steelers team.
All of that together screams that he's the most bankable sack artist in the league this season. Here's a bonus factor not even explicitly in the model: He has a lightning-quick jump, which he uses to his advantage.

You might be surprised that Watt is not the clear-cut leader of these projections, however, because he narrowly edged out the No. 2 edge rusher.


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2. Shaquil Barrett, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Sacks in 2020: 8
Projected sacks in 2021: 11.4

Yes, this looks like a stunner at first because Barrett had just eight sacks last season, a big drop-off from his league-leading 19.5 two seasons ago. Barrett has several other factors working for him, though. He's on a good team that blitzes a lot, for starters. Another important factor is the Bucs' opposing quarterbacks, who last season combined to average a higher sack rate than the combined opponents for any other team.

The following QBs, and their sack rates, are all on the Bucs' schedule (for context, QBR-qualifying quarterbacks averaged a sack rate of 5.4% last season): Carson Wentz (IND), 9.9%; Daniel Jones (NYG), 8.8%; Sam Darnold (CAR, twice), 8.3%; Cam Newton (NE), 7.4%; Jameis Winston (NO, twice), 6.7% (in 2019); Matthew Stafford (LAR), 6.6%.

Those first four have the highest sack rates in the league among qualifiers also expected to return as starters this season. And if Taysom Hill wins the quarterback job in New Orleans, he actually had a higher sack rate in 2020 than Winston had for the Bucs in 2019, albeit in a limited sample.


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3. Chandler Jones, Arizona Cardinals

Sacks in 2020: 1
Projected sacks in 2021: 10.2

This is an expected bounce-back after Jones missed most of last season to a right biceps injury suffered in Week 5. Given that injury, I was surprised to see him ranked so high. Jones did record 19 sacks for Arizona two seasons ago, plus the Cardinals blitz frequently under defensive coordinator Vance Joseph and face a favorable schedule of quarterbacks.

It's important to note that if these projections look low to you, Jones is the embodiment of the biggest reason why: injuries. The possibility of an injury has to be accounted for in these projections.


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4. Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams

Sacks in 2020: 13.5
Projected sacks in 2021: 9.9

Donald breaks our understanding for what should be possible from the defensive tackle position, and these projections are no different. The model recognizes his position and still has him this high. The next highest-ranked player who plays as an interior lineman more than 50% of the time is Kansas City's Chris Jones, who ranks 20th in these projections.

Donald's double-digit sacks in each of the past two seasons -- 13.5 last season, 12.5 in 2019 -- along with his extraordinary pass rush win rate for an interior rusher and strong sacks over expectation last season keep him in the top five.


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5. Za'Darius Smith, Green Bay Packers

Sacks in 2020: 12.5
Projected sacks in 2021: 9.9

Smith is different from most other sack artists in that the Packers often kick him inside to play tackle on third down, and he has success there. Eight of Smith's 12.5 sacks came on plays he began as a tackle.

Smith has 26 sacks over the past two seasons -- equal to Donald -- and there seems little reason to believe he will slow down on a Packers team that could again be leading in plenty of games.


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6. Myles Garrett, Cleveland Browns

Sacks in 2020: 12
Projected sacks in 2021: 9.7

Garrett is consistent, recording double-digit sacks and finishing in the top five in pass rush win rate in each of the past two years. (He also had 13.5 sacks in 2018, though the model doesn't look that far back.)

Garrett's 2020 sack total might have been suppressed by his bout with COVID-19. He missed two games after contracting the virus, admitting that he struggled even after returning to the field. In his nine games before hitting the COVID-19/reserve list, Garrett had 4.9 sacks over expectation and had a pass rush win rate of 28%. In the five games he played after he returned he recorded -0.2 sacks over expectation and his win rate dropped to 25%.

One factor working against Garrett is that the quarterbacks the Browns are scheduled to face don't take sacks frequently.


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7. Bud Dupree, Tennessee Titans

Sacks in 2020: 8
Projected sacks in 2021: 9.1

What the model sees in Dupree is a player who had eight sacks in just 11 games for the Steelers last season and is set to face an easy schedule of quarterbacks in 2021. It's bullish on the Titans' free-agent signing, even knowing that those sacks came in a high-sack expectation environment (in the blitz-happy Pittsburgh defense opposite T.J. Watt).

What the model can't take into account is that Dupree suffered a torn ACL in early December and began training camp in Tennessee on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. Even though he has been activated off the PUP list, that should temper his 2021 expectations.


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8. Danielle Hunter, Minnesota Vikings

Sacks in 2020: Did not play
Projected sacks in 2021: 8.6

Hunter missed the entire 2020 season due to a herniated disk in his neck that required surgery to repair. That hurts him in these projections, but he can't drop too far, because we're still talking about a 26-year-old edge rusher who had 14.5 sacks two seasons ago. There are only five players who have recorded that many sacks in at least one of the past two years.

Hunter got a reworked contract this summer, and he has been "unrestricted" in his workouts at Minnesota training camp.


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9. Joey Bosa, Los Angeles Chargers

Sacks in 2020: 7.5
Projected sacks in 2021: 8.5

The numbers forecast a slight rebound for Bosa in 2021. He dipped from 11.5 sacks in 2019 to 7.5 last season, though he played in only 12 games and the model takes that into account.

Bosa has a consistently strong pass rush win rate -- he ranked sixth and fifth in 2019 and 2020, respectively, among edge rushers -- and that helps make up for his drop in sacks a year ago.

Bosa's brother, Nick, by the way, is No. 12 in these projections. The 49ers edge rusher tore his ACL in Week 2 a year ago but should be ready for the start of this season.


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10. Jason Pierre-Paul, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Sacks in 2020: 9.5
Projected sacks in 2021: 8.4

Pierre-Paul's 2020 season was a perfect example of how the right situation can be a significant factor in a sack total. He ranked 43rd out of 46 qualifiers in pass rush win rate as an edge defender, yet still managed 9.5 sacks. Why?

Because of what was going on around him, though he is stellar at finishing plays. Pierre-Paul was part of a good, blitz-heavy defense on a contending team with other pass-rushers such as Shaquil Barrett and Vita Vea on the same defensive line. He ranked third in expected sacks last season -- and his situation should be similar in 2021.

Even though the 32-year-old Pierre-Paul isn't the player he once was, his environment should again make him a sack threat.

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Top 50 Players In Projected Sacks For 2021​

RANKPLAYERTEAMPROJ.
SACKS
RANKPLAYERTEAMPROJ.
SACKS
1T.J. WattPIT11.526Stephon TuittPIT7
2Shaquil BarrettTB11.427Markus GoldenARZ6.9
3Chandler JonesARZ10.228Frank ClarkKC6.9
4Aaron DonaldLAR9.929Yannick NgakoueLV6.8
5Za'Darius SmithGB9.930Carl Lawson*NYJ6.7
6Myles GarrettCLE9.731Andrew Van GinkelMIA6.6
7Bud DupreeTEN9.132Khalil MackCHI6.5
8Danielle HunterMIN8.633Brandon GrahamPHI6.5
9Joey BosaLAC8.534J.J. WattARZ6.4
10Jason Pierre-PaulTB8.435Haason ReddickCAR6.3
11Cameron JordanNO8.336Chase YoungWAS6.3
12Nick BosaSF7.937Arik ArmsteadSF6.3
13Harold Landry IIITEN7.838Von MillerDEN6.3
14Emmanuel OgbahMIA7.739Bradley ChubbDEN6.2
15Josh AllenJAX7.640Mario AddisonBUF6.2
16Brian BurnsCAR7.441Jordan JenkinsHOU6.2
17Montez SweatWAS7.442Carlos Dunlap IISEA6.1
18Trey HendricksonCIN7.243Derek BarnettPHI6
19Justin HoustonBAL7.244Jerry HughesBUF5.8
20Chris JonesKC7.145Sam HubbardCIN5.8
21Maxx CrosbyLV7.146Robert QuinnCHI5.7
22Matt JudonNE7.147DeForest BucknerIND5.6
23Leonard FloydLAR748Romeo OkwaraDET5.6
24Dante Fowler JrATL749Josh SweatPHI5.6
25Preston SmithGB750DeMarcus LawrenceDAL5.6
*Lawson will miss the season with an Achilles injury.
These projections were done prior to his injury.
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Four more notable sack projections:

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13. Harold Landry III, Tennessee Titans

Sacks in 2020: 5.5
Projected sacks in 2021: 7.8

One factor I haven't mentioned much is playing time, but Landry gets a boost because ESPN's Mike Clay projects a small edge-rushing rotation in Tennessee, which means Landry projects to play the second-most snaps for anyone considered here.

Add in the easily sackable quarterbacks I mentioned the Titans facing in Bud Dupree's section and Landry appears primed for improvement in the sack column.


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18. Trey Hendrickson, Cincinnati Bengals

Sacks in 2020: 13.5
Projected sacks in 2021: 7.2

Hendrickson, who signed with the Bengals in free agency after a breakout 2020 season in New Orleans, is a fascinating case. Not only was his sack total high last season, but his sack rate was through the roof because he played fewer snaps than most of the other pass-rushers, which is part of the reason he led the league in sacks over expectation.

On the flip side, it was a dramatic departure from the season before, when Hendrickson had just 4.5 sacks and the third-worst pass rush win rate among qualifiers at edge. I read the 7.2-sack projection as the model splitting the difference between those two years. It's not fully buying his breakout campaign, but it's not writing it off, either.


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32. Khalil Mack, Chicago Bears

Sacks in 2020: 9
Projected sacks in 2021: 6.5

This is one of those results that caused me to go back and make sure I didn't have a bug in the model. We're talking about Khalil Mack here! So what is going on? A few inputs all point toward a drop in sacks.\

The Bears have a low projected win total, so they won't get opponents into desperate situations as often. The opposing quarterbacks they will face average a low sack rate, and his pass rush win rate last season wasn't particularly high. Also, he is 30 now and hasn't hit double-digit sacks since 2018.

It's still surprising given Mack's reputation, but the underlying numbers show there are some factors working against him.


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36. Chase Young, Washington Football Team

Sacks in 2020: 7.5
Projected sacks in 2021: 6.3

I'd call the low number on Mack a surprising result that makes sense given some of the underlying information. Young, however, might actually be a case in which we really are underestimating him.

That's because all of Young's numbers look a little different within the context of the fact that he was the No. 2 overall pick in 2020. A 7.5-sack rookie season with a strong pass rush win rate is a great start for a rookie. That plus being a high draft pick means there are (reasonable) expectations of ascension that the model doesn't quite capture. Thinking that the model underrates Young here is fair, in my view. But that's why these are projections; let's see how they turn out in January.
 
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