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NFC East: Division Pass Rush In Flux After Down Year


This is a completely true factoid: of the four sack leaders for each team in the NFC East, three of them will be free agents when the league year starts in March.

Longtime Giant Justin Tuck, who rebounded from a slow start to tie for the division lead in sacks, is looking for a new contract as he gets set to turn 31. Jason Hatcher, who tied him with 11 sacks on the season, is in the same boat, but he is turning 32 this year.

The Redskins' young sack artist, Brian Orakpo, finished with 10 sacks – just in time to finish out his rookie deal from 2009. The only sack leader in the division who is still under contract is Trent Cole, and he managed just eight on the year.

Even if you want to go back a season, the Cowboys' top pass rusher of 2012, Anthony Spencer, is also available to free agency after missing the vast majority of 2013 with an injury. The point being: there's a lot in flux when it comes to the pass rushers in this division. For the purposes of this story, I'm going to assume these guys move elsewhere in 2014. It all becomes too convoluted otherwise.

When you factor out those guys, you're left with a curious cast – namely, guys who dealt with disappointing seasons last year. It makes for an interesting question about the future of the pass rush in this division.

The two biggest names at the position, especially if Tuck leaves, are undoubtedly DeMarcus Ware and Jason Pierre-Paul. Ware is a sure-fire member of the Cowboys' Ring of Honor, and he's going to have a legitimate chance at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

I shouldn't need to remind anyone, however, that he endured his second-straight injury-plagued season and finished with a mere six sacks – the worst total of his career. This comes on the heels of a 2012 season that saw him produce 11 sacks, but once again fight copious injuries.

Pierre-Paul is now two years removed from his monstrous 2011 season, when he notched 16.5 sacks. In the two seasons since, he's notched about half that tally – 6.5 in 2012 and just two last year.

In terms of resume, those two take the top spots. But how do you feel about them going forward? With both players dealing with health problems, do you trust them to find their old form?

Behind them – and behind Orakpo on his roster – is probably Ryan Kerrigan. The Purdue product has been consistent to this point in his short career, averaging about eight sacks per season. He's never had fewer than 7.5 sacks, but he's also never broken the double-digit barrier. 

I feel good about Kerrigan's prospects longterm, but he hasn't had the standout success to this point compared to some of his pass rushing compatriots in the division. 

Cole and Connor Barwin form the crux of Philadelphia's 3-4 pass rush. Cole earned a big contract with three-straight seasons of double-digit sacks. He hasn't met those numbers recently, though, with three sacks during the Eagles' abysmal 2012 season and eight last year. [embedded_ad]

Barwin, who was brought in from Houston last year, was a disruptive force for Philadelphia, but he produced just five sacks. He's only managed one double-digit sack season in his four-year career.

Behind them is a host of solid but uninspiring numbers. New York's Mathias Kiwanuka has posted just 36 sacks in an eight-year career, with six last season. George Selvie roared onto the scene for the Cowboys with seven sacks in 2012, but that was literally his first season in five attempts with more than 1.5 sacks.

Assuming even a few of those free agents – or potentially all of them -- move on from their current roster, you're looking at the potential for a lot of change in the NFC East.

The hope for Dallas and New York will be that their household names, Ware and Pierre-Paul, regain their old form for the time being. But even if that's the case, this is a division with a dearth of elite pass rushers. It's no wonder most draft prognosticators list defensive line and linebacker as needs for all four teams.

The race to find the next Pro Bowl pass rush expert could be a major tipping point in what is already a tight division.

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