History, and most every rational brain in sports, indicates that the quarterback position is easily the most important and valuable on any football roster. In order to protect the most valued member of the team, the NFL has proven that the left tackle is the second most important position on the field.
Therefore, any player who can neutralize and defeat said bookend tackle immediately becomes the third most important player, correct? Just ask the New England Patriots and Tom Brady about whether or not a truly elite defensive line can stop a historic passing attack? In 2007 or 2011?
The ability to pressure the quarterback and disrupt the offense by only using the defensive line can be the difference between victory and defeat. A dynamic pass rusher must be accounted for on every play, because if he is not, the entire offensive rhythm can be shattered.
So after watching third-down specialist Bruce Irvin get drafted in the first round this spring, Athlon thought it would rank the top sack masters in college football for 2012:
1. Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina (SO)
There is no player in the nation with more raw upside than Clowney. He posted 8.0 sacks and five forced fumbles as only a true freshman who, frankly, didn't even know where to lineup at times. An advanced understanding of the game is the only thing left for this freak of nature to accomplish in his journey towards the NFL. Should he continue to develop his pass-rush repertoire and fine tune his skills, Clowney will find himself as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft. And it might not even be close. He could easily turn into the most dominate defensive player in the game by the end of the year. Or maybe by Week 1 against Vanderbilt.
2. Jarvis Jones, Georgia (JR)
The 3-4 scheme is designed with players like Jones in mind. Todd Grantham has done a masterful job with the Georgia front seven and the biggest beneficiary has been Jones. A Butkus finalist, the in-state product led the SEC in sacks with 13.5 sacks and also posted 19.5 tackles for a loss. The only thing keeping this speedy edge rusher off the top slot is his lack of overall size. He isn't a traditional pass rusher and his scheme helps him more than most on this list.
3. Sam Montgomery, LSU (JR)
As only a sophomore, Monty landed on the All-American team after leading LSU in sacks. He may not be as quick as the much smaller Jarvis Jones and he may not have the eventual upside of a Jadeveon Clowney, but Montgomery might be the most complete defensive end in the nation. He is being projected as a top ten pick by NFL scouts for next year's draft and has proven to be one of the nation's most disruptive players. His 9.0 sacks were fourth-best in LSU history last fall and his 13.5 tackles for a loss further indicate his talent. And he was only a sophomore.
4. Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas (JR)
There isn't a more prepared and fundamentally sound player in the game today. His NFL pedigree and up-brining shines through on every play and helped him lead his team in sacks (8.0) and tackles for a loss (16.5). Of course, his 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame doesn't hurt much either. The Longhorns were — and will be again this fall — easily the most dominate defense in the Big 12 thanks in large part to Jeffcoat's ability to get into the backfield.
5. Denicos Allen, Michigan State (JR)
The Big Ten's version of Jones doesn't have the benefit of playing in a 3-4 scheme where he is allowed to blitz on a regular basis. That said, his quickness and explosiveness allowed him to get to the quarterback 11.0 times last fall, good for second in the Big Ten. His 18.5 tackles for a loss also led the team and placed him fourth in the conference. He is undersized at 5-foot-11 and 225 pounds, but he gets every ounce of energy out of his frame.
6. Barkevious Mingo, LSU (JR)
Mingo is a near carbon copy of his end counterpart Montgomery. He might be a bit quicker and a bit more explosive than Montgomery, so if he can refine his craft to the fullest, he could end up much higher on this list. As only a sophomore, he finished with 8.0 sacks, 11 hurries and 15.0 tackles for a loss on a defense that led LSU to an unbeaten regular season record.
7. Corey Lemonier, Auburn (JR)
As only a sophomore with little help around him, Lemonier finished with 9.5 sacks, 15 quarterback hurries and 13.5 tackles for a loss. Much like the rest of the SEC names on this list, the 6-foot-4, 245-pound rush end has first-round NFL potential and won't be around much longer should his success continue. His role in Brian VanGorder's system might be slightly different and it is unsure as to how it will effect his statistical production. But make no mistake, he is the best Tiger defender on the roster.
8. Alex Okafor, Texas (SR)
Certainly, both Texas ends benefit from each other, but Okafor is not slouch on his own. Like Jeffcoat, he is a projected first-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft and his stats nearly mirror his counterparts. The local product finished just behind Jeffcoat in sacks (7.0) and tackles for a loss (12.0) last fall. Again, this is the best unit in the Big 12 and Okafor is a huge reason why.
9. Trevardo Williams, UConn (SR)
Williams is undersized for the true defensive end position, but he certainly makes it work. His 6-foot-2, 235-pound frame isn't ideal but he still managed to lead the Big East in sacks. In fact, his 1.04 sacks per game was good for second nationally and his 12.5 total QB takedowns finished fifth nationally. He also posted 15.0 tackles for a loss and helped the Huskies finish No. 1 against the run in the Big East.
10. Aaron Donald, Pitt (JR)
As only a sophomore, Donald registered 11.0 sacks to finish second in the Big East. His 16.0 tackles for a loss were tied for fourth in the league. He isn't as tall as most traditional ends (6-0), but uses excellent leverage and a powerful, 275-pound frame to get the edge.
The Best of the Rest:
11. Sean Porter, Texas A&M (SR)
Posted 9.5 sacks a year ago but change in scheme could limit his totals this fall.
12. Josh Shirley, Washington (SO)
Looking for the next Bruce Irvin? This former linebacker could easily be the guy.
15. John Simon, Ohio State (SR)
Works harder, is stronger and tougher than maybe anyone in the nation. A terror in 2012.
14. Michael Buchanan, Illinois (SR)
Learned from nation's top sack artist last year (Whitney Merclius), had 7.5 of his own too.
15. Brandon Jenkins, Florida State (SR)
Stepped back last fall due to double-teams, so All-American needs to prove it once again.
16. Dion Jordan, Oregon (SR)
Freakish size and ability for the hybrid role. Needs to add consistency to his game.
17. Devin Taylor, South Carolina (SR)
Huge prospect (6-7, 265) could explode with Clowney on opposite side.
18. Bjoern Werner, Florida State (SR)
More consistent and dependable than Jenkins but also not as physically gifted.
19. Stansly Maponga, TCU (JR)
Registered 9.0 sacks and 13.5 TFL, but can he handle step up in competition?
20. James Gayle, Virginia Tech (JR)
Landed 7.0 sacks last fall as only a sophomore and could be on the nation's best defense.
Others to consider:
21. Damontre Moore, Texas A&M
22. Travis Johnson, San Jose State
23. Margus Hunt, SMU
24. Wes Horton, USC
25. Art Laurel, Hawaii
-by Braden Gall