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Rule of Three: Ranking the top 10 NFL pass-rushing trios in 2020

The Bears have a dominant three-headed monster rushing the passer this year, but where does that group stand among the rest of the NFL?

Chicago Bears v Green Bay Packers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Richard Dent has long been on record saying that an NFL team needs to have three great pass rushers for that defense to be a truly dominant unit.

The Bears legend and Pro Football Hall of Famer was a part of a “Rule of Three” unit in his day, teaming with Dan Hampton and Steve McMichael to form a dangerous trio that was a driving force behind their Super Bowl victory after the 1985 season.

We see many teams applying this approach today, and Dent’s old team is certainly one of them. But where do the Bears stand among the rest of the league in terms of three-headed pass-rushing units?

To simplify things, I’m only two ranking edge rushers with one interior defensive lineman. Since teams rarely, if ever, rush with three edge rushers at once, it wouldn’t be a true representation of a team’s three-man rush to exclude interior defenders from the list.

Let’s take a look at the top 10 “Rule of Three” pass-rushing trios in the NFL heading into 2020.

10. Cincinnati Bengals: Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Sam Hubbard

A handful of teams stood out as possible fits for the No. 10 spot, especially the Bills, Ravens, Chargers and Browns, but the Bengals may just have the most underrated pass-rushing trio in the league.

Atkins may have had only 4.5 sacks last season, but he had 39 sacks in the last four seasons prior to 2019 and has long been establishing as one of the best pass-rushing defensive tackles in the NFL. He has long been complemented by the immensely underrated Dunlap, who had nine sacks last year and has had 81.5 sacks in 10 seasons with the Bengals with, unfortunately, just two Pro Bowls to show for it.

Hubbard stepped into a full-time starting role in 2019 and took advantage of it, tallying 8.5 sacks and 76 tackles in just his second professional season. He had six sacks as a rookie, too, so he appears to be a safe bet to start off the edge for years to come. Cincinnati may be in the midst of a rebuilding phase, but they still have one of the NFL’s better pass-rushing units.

9. Minnesota Vikings: Danielle Hunter, Yannick Ngakoue, Ifeadi Odenigbo

Placing the Vikings here is technically cheating, as Odenigbo isn’t a full-time interior defensive lineman. However, seeing as though the Northwestern alumnus could factor as an interior rusher on passing downs, I gave them a pass.

With 37.5 sacks in the past four years, Ngakoue has been a consistent presence in opposing backfields throughout his career and has never had fewer than eight sacks in a single season. The same can be said for his new teammate, Hunter, who is coming off of back-to-back 14.5-sack seasons and has 54.5 sacks in his five-year NFL career. The two-time Pro Bowler is an elite edge rusher who is being paid a very team-friendly contract, both of which boding well for Minnesota.

Odenigbo is still fairly unproven, as he only played in one game before 2019. With his seven-sack season as a reserve, though, he has proven worthy of having a role on this Minnesota defense. If he can build upon that campaign, this trio could end up higher on the list in due time.

8. Philadelphia Eagles: Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett

If Aaron Donald didn’t exist, then Cox would likely be the best interior defensive lineman in the NFL for several years now.

His sack total of 3.5 was lower than normal last year, but the five-time Pro Bowler was still disruptive and is just two seasons removed from having 10.5 sacks and 34 quarterback hits from the defensive tackle position. Graham, Cox’s long-time partner in crime, has been an underrated producer off the edge for quite some time, including an 8.5-sack season last year.

Joining the two veterans is Barnett, who has generally fallen short of expectations as a first-round pick in 2017 but has still been a solid pass rusher, reaching a career-high 6.5 sacks in 2019. Cox’s down year and neither Eagles edge rusher having reaching double-digit sacks in their careers hurts Philadelphia’s case here, but they still have put forth a formidable trio when it comes to getting to the quarterback.

7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Jason Pierre-Paul, Shaquil Barrett, Ndamukong Suh

Tampa Bay’s starting edge rushers combined for 28 sacks last year, and one of them didn’t even play for six games. That’s how good the tandem of Pierre-Paul and Barrett was in 2019.

Pierre-Paul is an established veteran who has tallied 21 sacks in his two seasons with the Buccaneers, including 8.5 sacks in just 10 games last year. If he stays healthy, there’s a strong chance he could finish with double-digit sacks in 2020. He’ll have plenty of help from Barrett, who exploded with a league-leading 19.5 sacks last season. While unknown if 2019 was just a flash in the pan for him—his sack total was five sacks greater than his career total in his previous five years—the Tampa defense appears to be a great fit for him.

Vita Vea is the better all-around defensive lineman at this stage of Suh’s career, but the five-time All-Pro was narrowly the more productive pass rusher last year, reaching 2.5 sacks and 14 quarterback hits to Vea’s 2.5 and 12, respectively. Suh isn’t the player he used to be, and part of that factors into Tampa Bay’s not ranking higher on the list. He’s still a disruptive player, though, and the production of their edge rushers gets the Buccaneers in the top 10.

6. Washington Football Team: Ryan Kerrigan, Chase Young, Matt Ioannidis

Want to know how deep Washington’s pass rush is? I didn’t even include Jonathan or Montez Sweat in their “Rule of Three” trio, and they combined for 13 sacks last year.

While the 32-year-old Kerrigan is being slowly fazed out of Washington’s system in favor of Young and Sweat, the four-time Pro Bowler is still a force, even after missing four games and notching a career-low 5.5 sacks in 2019. Prior to that, he had 84.5 sacks in his eight NFL seasons and was coming off of double-digit sacks in four of his past five seasons. It goes without saying how talented Young is, having annihilated Big Ten blockers in a 16.5-sack, 21-tackle for a loss season in 2019. He hasn’t played a snap in the league yet, but this year’s No. 2 pick has a well-rounded skillset that should translate to success in the NFL.

Washington’s interior defensive line is stacked, but I went with Ioannidis to represent the team here. Arguably one of the league’s most underrated interior defenders, the five-year veteran has had 16 sacks over the past two seasons. Outside of Kerrigan, every Washington defender mentioned is 26 years old or younger, meaning the team has a great foundation up front.

5. San Francisco 49ers: Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, Javon Kinlaw

If Dee Ford was allowed to replace the rookie Kinlaw on this list, the 49ers would likely find their way into the top three. However, I have set a strict criteria in place, so an interior defender is necessary here.

Bosa projected as a Day 1 impact player coming out of the draft, and he did exactly that. The Defensive Rookie of the Year had nine sacks, 16 tackles for a loss and 25 quarterback hits last season, making a Super Bowl appearance and being named to the Pro Bowl in the process. He forced a dominant duo off the edge with Armstead, who broke out in 2019 with a career-high 10 sacks as he transitioned from an interior defender to a 4-3 base edge rusher.

Kinlaw being a rookie makes it tough to determine where to place this trio. The first-round pick is a talented prospect with the physical tools to be a legitimate force in the league, but he may have some growing pains along the way. Had they not traded DeForest Buckner, San Francisco likely would’ve placed in at least the top three, but the future is still plenty bright in the Bay Area.

4. Green Bay Packers: Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, Kenny Clark

The Packers took an aggressive approach in signing the Smiths to pricy contracts last offseason to hold down their two edge rusher positions, and it certainly paid off for them last year.

The tandem combined for 25.5 sacks last year, with Za’Darius earning a Pro Bowl appearance for his efforts. With both edge rushers having career years, Green Bay put forth one of the most impressive collective performances of any team at that position. Some concern may be warranted with Preston, as he has followed every big year of his career up with a disappointing season the next year up to this point, but as it stands now, there isn’t much to be worried about with them.

Joining the Smiths as a disruptive interior defender is Clark, who locked up a massive extension in August and has had a combined 12 sacks as a nose tackle in the last two seasons: a tough thing to do from that position. Another big year from their edge rushers could solidify them even higher on this list, but regardless, the Packers have one of the best pass-rushing trios in the NFL.

3. Chicago Bears: Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Robert Quinn

Mack and Hicks have run roughshod over opposing offenses when they’ve been on the field together, and now they finally have another dangerous pass rusher to complete their terrifying trio.

Quinn joins the Bears after revitalizing his career with a 11.5-sack season with the Cowboys last year. Prior to that, he had 15 sacks in his previous two seasons, and while his 2015 and 2016 campaigns were nothing to call home about, he has proven that he can be a top-notch complementary pass-rusher. That makes him a perfect fit alongside Mack, who has proven himself an impactful force off the edge despite seeing a high rate of double-teams and chip blocks.

Before an injury-plagued 2019, Hicks had 23 sacks in his previous three years with the Bears and had established himself as one of the top defensive linemen in the league. There could be a lot riding on Hicks returning at full strength and Quinn maintaining his momentum, but if all goes well, Chicago’s trio could be the toughest to stop in the league.

2. Denver Broncos: Von Miller, Bradley Chubb, Jurrell Casey

Vic Fangio should have a blast working with this unit of pass-rushers in Denver.

Miller is what he is at this point: a consistent, athletic, and disruptive force off the edge whom you can trust to blow up the backfield. The eight-time Pro Bowler is flanked by Chubb, a promising and powerful young edge rusher who was sorely missed by the Broncos after his ACL tear in the fourth game of the season. He finished his 2018 rookie season with 12 sacks and 21 quarterback hits, and if he can build off of that in 2020, then there’s no reason to think he can’t earn his first Pro Bowl appearance.

Add in the incoming Casey, who has had five consecutive Pro Bowls and has had 45.5 sacks along the interior over the past seven years, and it’s hard to argue the Broncos don’t have an elite trio on their hands.

1. Pittsburgh Steelers: T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, Bud Dupree

The Steelers had one of the best defenses in the league last year, and their pass rush was a big reason why.

Watt has truly broken out of older brother J.J. Watt’s shadow, quickly becoming one of the best pass-rushers in the NFL. A first-team All-Pro as an edge rusher and a second-team All-Pro as a linebacker, Watt was a strong Defensive Player of the Year candidate who finished with 14.5 sacks, 36 quarterback hits, 14 tackles for a loss and a league-leading eight forced fumbles. He was joined off the edge by Dupree, who put together a career year with 11.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. Franchise tagged by Pittsburgh in March, time will tell if he can continue to play at that high of a level.

As if that dominance at edge rusher wasn’t enough, the Steelers also have Heyward, who is a truly elite interior defender. He has had 29 sacks in his last three seasons and has been named a first-team All-Pro in two of those years, including last year. When it comes to rushing the passer, Pittsburgh might genuinely have the best trio of defenders in the league.