Who is the best pass rusher?
That is a question that has buried itself deep into the minds of NFL fans for decades. It’s never a clear-cut answer. There have been times where the answer should’ve been clear, like in the early-to-mid 2010s when J.J. Watt was wreaking havoc on opposing offensive linemen. More recently, it should have been clear in the late 2010s, as Aaron Donald racked up three DPOY Awards. In 2021 though, the answer has seemed much muddier. Googling this question could result in a myriad of players being named by various people, but two players seem to come up more consistently than any others: Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt and Cleveland’s Myles Garrett.
It makes sense. These two currently lead the NFL in sacks and have not only been dominant since entering the NFL, but they have gotten better every year. This debate runs deeper than just NFL fans though. These two play on teams within the same division. Their fan bases don’t like each other and haven’t had much to root for this season. The Browns have greatly 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, even inept on offense at times. 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 either of these fanbases can hold on to at this point, but I can’t understand how anyone still thinks TJ Watt is the superior pass rusher. I just can’t.
Let’s get the basic stuff out of the way first. Garrett is a year younger than Watt and is on a more team-friendly contract than Watt is. Neither of those things matter when determining who is currently better at getting to opposing quarterbacks, but it’s still something I feel as though I should point out. In a sport that actually has a salary cap, signing a longer contract for less money than opposition of similar skill levels can be greatly beneficial, as is the case with Garrett. Still, that doesn’t mean he’s a better pass rusher.
Garrett’s pass rush win rate percentages do tell the story though. Through Week 14, there isn’t a single player in the NFL with a higher pass rush win rate coming off the edge than Garrett (27 percent). Watt, as great as he is, ranks just fifth among edge defenders. Not only is Garrett winning more often, but he’s getting double-teamed more often too.
Through Week 13, Garrett was the eighth-most double teamed defensive end/outside linebacker in the NFL, drawing attention from more than one O-lineman on over one-fifth of his pass rushing attempts. Watt sits at around 18 percent — the 19th-highest rate in the league. There is an argument to be made that Watt doesn’t draw as many double teams because he plays on the same side of the D-line as Cameron Heyward. Heyward is one of the best interior pass rushers in the NFL. Since the duo usually play on the same side, defenses can’t afford to double block one of them for fear that the other could break through much more easily. However, with Heyward being as good as he is, you’d expect to see Watt’s pass rush win rate to be through the roof in the same way that Aldon Smith had insane win rate and sack figures for the San Francisco 49ers when he was playing alongside Justin Smith. That’s not to say that Watt doesn’t have those numbers, but rather to show that Garrett’s ability to put up similar, and sometimes outright better, numbers than Watt without that interior presence to help him out, are all the more impressive.
According to PFF, Garrett has actually been better in total run defense as well. It’s by a slim margin (Watt: 70.4 grade against the run; Garrett: 70.6), but it’s an edge nonetheless.
Several oddsmakers currently have Watt and Garrett tied atop their Defensive Player of the Year leaderboards.
However, a quick deep dive into the statistics clearly shows who the best edge rusher in the NFL has been in 2021. I firmly believe that Watt was better than Garrett in 2020, and in my opinion, he should’ve won the DPOY Award last season over Donald. In 2021 though, he’s clearly a step behind Garrett in every department. The debate can rage on, but one more year of these types of numbers from both players, and we might have to concede the argument to Garrett altogether.