- Bill Williamson, ESPN Staff Writer
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With Michael Strahan's retirement, there is a changing of the pass-rushing guard. Here's a look at the top-10 players who bring in the heat in the NFL:
1. Jared Allen, DE, Minnesota Vikings: Allen is the best pure pass-rusher in the NFL. That's why Minnesota gave up a ton
(a first-round pick and two third-rounders)
to get him in a trade from Kansas City last month.
Allen is a defense-changing talent and he's getting better. At 26, Allen is just entering his prime. Look at last season. Despite serving a two-game league suspension for violating the substance abuse policy, Allen led the league with 15½ sacks in 14 games.
He has an incredible motor and tries to get to the quarterback every play. Expect Allen to lead the league in sacks a few more times before his career is over. There is no doubt the Vikings just acquired the most dominant pass-rusher in the NFL.
2. Mario Williams, DE, Houston Texans: Williams will secure Charley Casserly's legacy. Casserly's last move as Houston's general manager was to take Williams over Reggie Bush in the 2006 draft. Casselry was hammered for the decision initially, and the criticism only intensified when Williams struggled as a rookie (4½ sacks).
But Williams came on strong last season and was dominant in the final month. His 14 sacks tied for third in the NFL. This high ranking for Williams might be considered a reach by many, but this is a player who has already figured out the NFL and will be dominant for the next several years.
This is a premier pass-rusher; a classic pass-rusher, really. He has great burst off the edge and is worth every penny of the $72 million the Colts gave him last season. Expect Freeney to bounce back this season and give the Colts' defense a major boost with his brilliant pass-rush presence.
4. Osi Umenyiora, DE, New York Giants: Umenyiora was the Giants' security blanket at defensive end, and with the retirement of Strahan, he becomes the Giants' main pass-rushing threat. New York's defensive front is the primary reason New York shocked Tom Brady and the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Umenyiora was a major reason for that success, but now he has to show he can provide pressure minus a future Hall of Famer at left end.
He is a big, stout player who often simply outmuscles offensive tackles. The problem with Umenyiora is that he can occasionally disappear. We'll all remember his six-sack performance against Philadelphia last season. But Umenyiora added just seven sacks the rest of the season. He must become more consistent, especially with the retirement of Strahan.
5. DeMarcus Ware, LB, Dallas Cowboys: Ware, who had 14 sacks last season, is a consistent pass-rusher. He's also a complete player. He often covers tight ends in some passing situations. Dallas is deep with pass-rushers with Greg Ellis and Anthony Spencer in addition to Ware, so it can afford to use Ware in other situations. Yet, when he's bringing the heat, few do it better.
6. Patrick Kerney, DE, Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks acquired Kerney last year after outlasting Denver in a free-agent bidding war. Seattle is very happy it did. Kerney has one of the best motors in the game. He simply never takes a play off.
Underrated as a run-stopper, Kerney is relentless in his pursuit of the quarterback on pass plays. He outworks his opponents and just wears them down. He was second behind Allen with 14½ sacks in 2007.
7. Shawne Merriman, LB, San Diego Chargers: Merriman has taken his shots in the wake of his steroid suspension and getting blown up by Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew last season. Still, this is a quality player. Merriman is a big talent and is a threat to take over a game at any time. Quarterbacks fear him.
9. Jason Taylor, DE, Miami Dolphins: Taylor is slipping down the list because of age. That's all. He is a fine player. Remember, he is a season removed from being the NFL's defensive player of the year. But Taylor turns 34 just before the start of the regular season, so time might be creeping up on this dancing star.
The list of quality pass-rushers doesn't end here. Among the other players considered for this list include New England's Adalius Thomas, Philadelphia's Trent Cole, Green Bay's Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, Buffalo's Aaron Schobel, Oakland's Derrick Burgess, Denver's Elvis Dumervil, Washington's Andre Carter, the N.Y. Giants' Justin Tuck and Ellis.
Bill Williamson covers the NFL for ESPN.com